California has been running an appallingly crowded prison system for more than two decades. In effect, the legislature and successive governors decided that the right way to resolve the tension between the voters’ desire for harsher punishment as expressed in the Three Strikes initiative and their own spinelessness about raising taxes was to crowd more and more prisoners into the same number of cells.

Now, many years after the federal district court ordered California to reduce crowding either by building more prisons or holding fewer prisoners, the Supreme Court has ordered the release of about 33,000 inmates. (Opinions here.)

Naturally, the conservative politicians who have made tax-cutting into a sacrament are shocked at not getting the services they don’t want to pay for

But in this case, not spending the money is probably the right thing to do. For the cost of keeping a prisoner, we could watch not only him, but several others with a combination of drug-testing (where relevant) GPS position monitoring (enabling curfews and making it hard to commit new crimes undetected), and HOPE-style sanctioning: swift, certain, and mild penalties for every violation of conditions.

Less crime, less spending, fewer prisoners. What’s not to like?

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.