The Texas Public Policy Foundation has a new project called Right On Crime, that advocates criminal justice reforms mostly in the "alternatives to incarceration" category. These include diversion and treatment programs, and also improved probation and parole practices that reduce the need to send people to prison, or back to prison. TPPF has really been at the forefront of a trend among conservative organizations and elected officials in revisiting the assumption that locking more people up for longer is better, so it's nice to see them launching this national project.
Why mention Right on Crime here? Because special interests that fall in the Public Sector Inc. box have been an important force for retaining mass-incarceration policies. For example, in 2004, California voters appeared poised to pass Proposition 66, which would have revised that state's Three Strikes Law, applying mandatory 25-years-to-life sentences only to convicts whose third crime was a violent or serious felony. The state prison guards' union dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to defeat the measure, and it narrowly went down.
Of course, some criminals should be incarcerated for a long time, and policies that are "tough on crime" can be good policies--just as it's often good public policy to build a new school or hire more police officers. But the existence of a good government program creates interested groups--prison guards' unions, public and private prison operators, District Attorneys--that put a thumb on the scale to have government do more of that program than it should. So, it's good that conservatives (and liberals) are asking whether criminal justice policies that incarcerate fewer people, and cost less money, can also be better for society.
The Manhattan Institute has its own initiative in criminal justice reform, the Newark Prisoner Reentry Initiative. This is a program that is designed to help convicts who have just been released from prison become "rapidly attached to work." So far, the program is achieving significant success in reducing recidivism rates--which shrinks the prison population, strengthens urban communities, and saves taxpayers money.