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