Regardless of whether filibuster rules change or not, political progress from the left in the next two years borders on the impossible. If we make it to 2012 unscathed with nothing more than gridlock it’ll be a miracle.

I’m looking toward the states for evidence of progress, which may come on several fronts. Multiple civil rights lawsuits could break favorably for the LGBT community, particularly in regards to marriage equality. Vermont could install a single-payer system. California will have a showdown over the budget that could result in legitimate tax fairness, and if the budget problems get solved, more attention could be given to the typical spate of groundbreaking, ahead-of-the-curve progressive policies that often set the agenda for the nation. The foreclosure fraud resolution will play out in state courts and the offices of state Attorneys General.

Another area for potential progress is prison reform. Despite the Great Recession, the state prison population actually experienced a slight drop in 2009 for the first time in 30 years, though the federal prison population increased. With state budgets constrained, lawmakers are looking for innovative solutions to keep down costs, and increasingly to smart on crime policies that both save money and result in safer communities. In Indiana, Republican Governor Mitch Daniels announced a plan to eventually reform state sentencing laws, in cooperation with the Pew Center on the States and the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Daniels endorsed a report from these groups saying that sentencing had become too punitive in Indiana, and will further an effort to turn the report into a sentencing reform law.

The groups determined Indiana’s current prison population stands at 29,000, about 40 percent higher than a decade ago.That growth rate is three times faster than neighboring states’. But while Indiana’s incarceration rates jumped, state crime rates have declined.

What’s behind the disparity?

The groups’ review of Indiana’s prison system suggests it’s because more people are being sentenced for property and drug offenses. If left unchecked the state’s prison population could rise to 35,000 in just seven years. Daniels and other state officials say Indiana must get a handle on this or face major costs for housing criminals in the near future. Daniels is endorsing recommendations made by both the Pew Center and the CSG Justice Center to reduce the state’s prison population.

“Every significant aspect of law enforcement and criminal justice has been brought together in this project,” Daniels said at a press conference in Indianapolis Wednesday. Daniels said the state should do a better job at determining who should go to prison and who shouldn’t. He said decreasing the number of convicted criminals will reduce the cost of building prisons and housing prisoners.

Decades of “tough on crime” stances, often from both parties, have led to massive sentencing increases in the states. Locking up nonviolent offenders and denying them access to drug and mental health treatment does not make communities safe from crime; in fact it wastes public dollars while creating prisons that are little more than vocational schools for harder crimes. Treatment and rehabilitation, along with sensible parole policies, can significantly reduce recidivism and overall incarceration without any impact on crime rates. It also creates more productive members to contribute to society, and allocates resources on dangerous offenders rather than spreading them across the system.

Maybe conservatives are gravitating toward these policies because they save money. But you can save money as a line-item in the prison system by just eliminating treatment and rehabilitation. The real test is to create an enduring solution to keep incarceration, sentencing and crime rates low. It’s completely doable and beneficial on multiple counts. I will be looking to Indiana and other states to see the development of smarter crime policy.

As a side note, the American Prospect has a special report on mass incarceration in America this month. There’s a lot of work to be done.

David Dayen

David Dayen