As the inmate population climbs toward 2.5 million, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is considering alternatives to prison for some offenders, including treatment for nonviolent drug users and employment training for minor parole violators, reports the Washington Post. If the commission recommends alternatives to Congress, it would send a strong signal to state sentencing commissions and legislatures, and could pave the way for a major expansion of drug courts and adult developmental programs for parolees. Said Beryl Howell, one of six commissioners, “People should be aware that every tough-on-crime act comes with a price. The average cost [of incarceration] across the country is $24,000 a year per inmate.  It’s going up far faster than state budgets can keep up.”
About 2,000 drug courts spend between $1,500 and $11,000 per offender, says to the National Drug Court Institute. Those courts handle only a small fraction of the 1.5 million nonviolent drug offenders who are charged with a crime, said C. West Huddleston of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. Jeffrey Sedgwick, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s office of justice programs, said the rising prison population might be worth the cost. Research has shown that crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises, he said: “As the number of people under correctional supervision goes up, crime goes down.” The commission may propose guidelines for public comment in late December. The commission could make a final decision by May 1. Congress would have 180 days to reverse the decision.