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States Exploring Drug Courts, Other Affordable Alternatives to Prison

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More than 25 states as well as Washington, D.C., are exploring alternative-sentencing methods and revamping probation and parole programs to cut the rising cost of keeping inmates in prison, the Washington Post reported July 13.

Governors and legislatures are particularly investing in drug courts, which offer low-level drug offenders treatment and weekly meetings with a judge as a way of keeping them from serving prison time.  States are also turning to the 500 courts nationwide designated for people arrested for driving under the influence, so that offenders will be sent to treatment programs and undergo random tests instead of being sent to jail.

Probation time in some states is also being reduced, as is the number of people sentenced to prison for minor violations such as failing to appear for scheduled court appointments.

“The economy is bringing a lot of states to the table,” said Adam Gelb, who directs the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project. “The research has pointed to a path for them to [provide] more public safety at less cost.”

The average cost to keep an inmate in prison is $79 per day, whereas the daily cost to monitor that person through probation or parole is $3.50, according to the Pew Center.

In an effort to reduce its prison spending, New York has eased mandatory-minimum drug laws enacted during the Rockefeller era, and Virginia is currently seeking sentencing alternatives for its nonviolent offenders.  President Barack Obama has requested more than $200 million from Congress for prisoner-reentry programs. 

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