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One way to cut prison costs

"Drug courts" could be an alternative to mandatory minimum sentences. State general-fund spending on corrections has risen 127 percent in two decades, according to a recent report.

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The expanding number of adults in prisons and jails in the US is nearing 2.5 million – more than 1 in 100 adults – the world's highest incarceration rate. As federal and state lawmakers try to downsize budgets, they should reconsider some of the tough-on-crime laws that have helped swell the prison population.

That's what the US Sentencing Commission is doing. It's reviewing ways to ease federal mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress in the mid-1980s. The minimums for first-time offenders apply mostly to drug crimes. The commission is considering recommendations that, if approved by lawmakers, could have nonviolent drug users opt for treatment instead of time behind bars.

States, which have mandatory minimum laws of their own, would do well to watch closely, because prisons account for a large part of their budgets. In 20 years, state general-fund spending on corrections has risen 127 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to a recent study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States. Nationwide, the annual cost of incarceration is an average $24,000 per inmate.

The Sentencing Commission is considering drug courts and treatment as a far less expensive alternative – between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender.

Drug courts are increasingly popular, though they handle only a fraction of the 1.5 million drug offenders who are arrested and charged with a crime each year. Since the first drug court opened in Miami in 1989, they've spread to every state and now total about about 2,100.

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