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In Prison or Jail, on Probation or on Parole

Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

NEW YORK, March 2 - After more than two decades of rising incarceration rates - propelled in part by stiff anti-drug laws imposed in the late 1970s and 1980s - the United States has one out of every 31 adults in the corrections system, either in prison, on probation or on parole, according to a comprehensive new study.

The Pew Center on the States, which released the report, found that the numbers varied significantly according to race and geography, with African Americans having the highest rate for adults in the correctional system - one out of 11 - compared with one in 45 adults and one in 27 Hispanic adults.

And although states have increased their spending on prisons by 300 percent over the past two decades, the report found that the vast majority of those in the corrections system are not in prison but living in communities on parole or probation. Yet funding for community-based programs to supervise offenders has not nearly kept pace.

That could be changing. Faced with declining revenue, severe budget deficits and crowded prisons, more and more states are looking at ways to keep nonviolent offenders, particularly drug users, out of prisons, by using special "drug courts" and offering treatment programs.

In a sign of a possible growing nationwide trend, New York, which has some of the harshest mandatory drug-sentencing laws in the country, passed during the governorship of Nelson A. Rockefeller, is taking steps beginning this week to repeal those laws and give judges more discretion in sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.

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