It is hard to defend government waste during a recession. After all the bailouts and bonuses, the public is sick of pricey handouts. Yet state governments still spend small fortunes on people like Paul Rivers.

Rivers robbed an espresso stand in 1994, swiping $337 from an attendant, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Washington state’s “three strikes and you’re out” law. After a push in the 1990s, about twenty-nine states now have such laws. They have not aged well.

Law enforcement experts repeatedly note two big flaws in the United States’ sentencing policies.

First, they are expensive.

The American Corrections Association reports that imprisoning even low-level offenders costs states about $25,000 per inmate, every single year. Add drug laws to the mix, and you can see why prisons have become one of the largest sources of waste in state and federal government. States spend about $6 trillion a year imprisoning drug offenders alone. Just legalizing pot would save over $7 billion in law enforcement costs, according to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

Second, America’s sentencing policies are crazy.

Under a three-strikes rule, criminals convicted of theft can face harsher sentences than rapists and murderers. The same goes for drug offenders, who clog our prisons. About 500,000 people are currently incarcerated for drug offenses–that is ten times the drug inmate population in 1980, before the harshest sentencing laws were enacted.

While many politicians (and voters) relish the rhetoric of cracking down on crime, these laws actually hamper the traditional criminal justice system. They limit judges’ ability to make individualized decisions about a convict’s punishment and rehabilitation. They take treatment programs off the table. And they ensure that the United States has one of the highest permanent prison populations in the world–regardless of our nation’s actual crime rates.

The practical and logical failures of these prison policies have nudged public opinion. A large share of Americans, for example, now back pot decriminalization. As the blog OpenLeft summarized recent polling data, “Legalizing Marijuana More Popular Than Republicans.” And twenty states have either legalized medical marijuana or passed laws prioritizing drug treatment over incarceration.

The economic downturn, however, may become the most likely catalyst for reform.

Politicians and voters are drastically rethinking spending priorities. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently made waves by citing budget woes as a potential reason to explore marijuana legalization. His state, which runs one of the harshest, priciest sentencing regimes in the country, is now considering an early release for tens of thousands of inmates. The potential about-face is driven by the state’s crushing budget problems, as Sasha Abramsky reports in this week’s Nation. It’s the same story in Virginia, where Governor Tim Kaine proposed releasing nonviolent inmates ninety days early to cut costs. The spirit has even hit Congress, where long sentences and severe drug laws have long drawn bipartisan support. Last week, Representative Barney Frank introduced a bill to scrap federal penalties for personal marijuana use, and limit the sanction for smoking pot in public to a $100 fine. And Senator Jim Webb, the centrist Virginia Democrat and former Reagan administration official, held hearings this month on his legislation to fundamentally reform federal drug and sentencing policy. His bill has already netted several Republican co-sponsors, and, according to Webb, “personal” support from President Obama. (This week, The House began moving on a companion bill.)

A few years back, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy concisely nailed the core problems facing the US criminal justice system: “Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” This is still true, and while the injustice and illogic of our sentencing policies never galvanized a change, maybe the senseless costs finally will.