Pubdate: Wed, 25 August 1999
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 1999 The Washington Post Company
Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Jenni Gainsborough
Note: The writer is the Communications Director of The Sentencing Project


Recent coverage of the increase in the U.S. prison population mistakenly
gives the impression that the prison explosion is slowing ["Rate of Growth
of Prisoners Declines in U.S.," news story, Aug. 16]. While the rate of
expansion is modestly below that of last year, the increase in the number of
inmates was the largest since 1995 and brings us to an all-time high of more
than 1.8 million people behind bars.

The nation's already overcrowded prison systems had to add more than 1,000
extra beds every week last year to accommodate almost 60,000 extra
prisoners. Despite relatively low crime rates and an unprecedented economic
expansion, the United States continues to lock up its citizens at a rate six
to 10 times higher than any comparable industrialized democracy.

With state corrections budgets stretched to meet even basic needs, less
funding is available for drug treatment, mental health care, education
programs and vocational training for people in prison, and less supervision
exists when they leave because parole officers have to carry much higher
caseloads. It's not surprising that the number of parole violators returned
to prison increased 39 percent between 1990 and 1997.

The inner-city communities to which most ex-offenders return have suffered
first from drug-related crime and now from the effects of incarceration on
so many of their young men -- a vicious cycle of poverty, violence and
broken families. The booming private economy largely has bypassed them,
while government money spent on building prisons drains support from job
creation and social services that are desperately needed.

If we do not use this period of prosperity and relatively low crime to
reassess the social and economic costs of our current get-tough policies and
the distorted allocation of resources they have engendered, the children in
our most vulnerable communities will pay the price.

Jenni Gainsborough, Communications Director, The Sentencing Project, Washington

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