The United States, notorious for its massive prison population, draconian sentencing and enthusiasm for capital punishment, is quietly abandoning its appetite for the toughest penal policies in the developed world.
States across a nation that fired British politicians of both Left and Right with an enthusiasm for 'zero tolerance', boot camps for delinquent juveniles, electronic tagging and 'three strikes, you're out' laws are giving up on their most controversial penal policies.
They now favor better community policing and treatment - rather than jail - for drug addicts, who make up a huge percentage of the prison population.
Details of the creeping liberalization have emerged as official figures show a big fall in executions for the second year running. Forty-eight people have been executed so far this year, down 27 per cent from this time last year. With 14 executions scheduled, this year's total could be down 30 per cent on 1999, when 98 were put to death.
Most significant has been the decline in executions in President Bush's state of Texas, and also in Virginia. This year Texas has put 12 people to death, compared with 40 last year. Virginia has executed one inmate, compared with eight executed in 2000 and 14 in 1999.
A 20-year trend towards ever tougher sentences is apparently in reverse. There is evidence the states with the toughest penal policies have been no more successful in fighting crime than those with more humane regimes.
In the past 12 months four states - Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana and North Dakota - have abandoned mandatory minimum sentencing, which made criminals serve long sentences without the possibility of parole.
Other states - including New York, Georgia, Idaho, Alabama and New Mexico - are re-evaluating state laws to reduce prison populations, which quadrupled in the US between 1970 and 1995.
Most surprising is the reform in Louisiana - whose prison system has a brutal reputation. In six years since the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing, its prison population has jumped by 50 per cent, while state prison expenditure has risen by 70 per cent.
A new law - supported by a right-wing Republican, Governor Mike Foster, and a Democratic senator, Donald Cravins - eliminates mandatory prison terms for crimes such as burglary, minor drug possession, fraud, prostitution and obscenity.
'We had half the population in prison,' Cravins told the New York Times last week, 'and the other half watching them. We were pouring money into a bottomless pit.'
The reappraisal of sentencing follows a decade-long decline in the number of crimes logged by the FBI's annual survey, the Uniform Crime Report .
The change in the US political landscape over high levels of incarceration - some two million Americans are in jail - comes as the annual prison bill has reached $30 billion (£20bn) during an economic slowdown.
A significant change in penal policy is emerging in California, the state responsible for introducing the 'three strikes, you're out' policy that gave mandatory life sentences to offenders on their third conviction.
According to recent research by the Sentencing Project in Washington, the biggest resistance to the law is from within the judicial system.
Introduced in 1994 by the Governor at that time, Pete Wilson, it was touted as the solution to the problem of the most serious, habitual and repeat offenders that by 31 May this year had seen more than 50,000 offenders admitted to prison. While the crime rate in California has declined, other states without a 'three strikes' law have seen a similar decline.
Marc Mauer, one of the authors of the Sentencing Project's report on California's 'three strikes' law, told The Observer: 'Practitioners in the criminal justice system, the public and politicians are all changing their outlooks.
'President Clinton positioned himself as being tough on crime, meaning there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. But in last year's presidential campaign we heard very little about crime.'
In California, says Mauer, opposition to the 'three strikes' law is led from the legal establishment. 'It is being chipped away by prosecutors and judges who don't want to use it.'
Mauer believes the decline in executions is linked to nervousness among practitioners within the judicial system following a number of cases of innocent men on death row being released following DNA tests that proved their innocence.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001