For the first time in years, Louisiana’s prison population decreased last year.

A drop of about 3,000 state inmates since 2012 has been one of the few bright spots in budget deliberations at the State Capitol, because feeding and housing prisoners is costly.

The state projects an inmate population of 38,000 in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Department of Corrections officials ascribed the improvement not to fewer people entering prison but fewer returning after they leave. That is perhaps in part because of a better job market over the past few years, because a steady job is one of the best guarantees against returning to a life of crime. Efforts by the department and some local sheriffs to stress literacy and job training while in jail have been constructive.

Still, Louisiana has a long way to go, as our state continues to be the leader in the percentage of its people behind bars, in state and local prisons.

Other Southern states have seen significant changes to their criminal justice systems, including a new proposal in Alabama to cut the state’s prison population by about 4,500 over the next five years. Sentences for some nonviolent crimes would be shortened, and more parole supervisors would be hired to help keep released inmates from returning.

Even conservative states — South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi included — are seeking a more sensible approach to crime and punishment. The sheer costs of imprisonment are a factor that cannot be overlooked.

This is not a classical liberal versus conservative fight, but rather one that requires reassessment of long-standing legal and financial arrangements by government institutions — courts, sheriffs and police agencies, prison administrators at the state and local level.

That this cause is championed not only by liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union but also the conservatives of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy speaks to the broad coalition pushing reforms in Louisiana.

Released inmates should be working, contributing to society instead of costing taxpayers money. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, of New Orleans, has pushed for reforms, as have business groups such as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

In a short session dominated by fiscal concerns, we may not see this year the kind of changes that have earned praise in other Southern states, but the stage is certainly set for improvements next year. A new governor and Legislature should not miss the opportunity to save money for the taxpayer, even if, as in Alabama, more money must be spent in the short term on probation and parole.