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Hard Times

Sure, the Chinese are ahead of us in green technology, Japan would lead us in auto production if it weren't for last year's massive earthquake, and Mexico leads us in, um, the consumption of Mexican food. But when it comes to locking up its own citizens, we're still No. 1! Roughly one out of every 200 Americans lives behind bars — and while Pennsylvania lags behind that rate, we still do well compared to neighboring states like New Jersey and New York.

But we pay for the privilege — more than $20,000 a year per prisoner. The drain on budgets is so huge that even Republicans are noticing. Gov. Tom Corbett — a former prosecutor himself — mentioned the need for alternatives in his recent budget address, and some GOP legislators have begun trying to find them.

A real sea change in our approach to crime may be years away, but the numbers below show why it's necessary. In the meantime, look on the bright side: Pennsylvania may not have Mexico's beaches or tropical weather, but with an incarceration twice as high, you may find it even harder to leave.

Number of Pennsylvania state prisons in 1979:

Number of Pennsylvania state prisons today: 26

Amount Gov. Tom Corbett plans to spend on prisons next year:

Amount Corbett plans to spend on higher education:

Incarceration rates in …

For each dollar you pay in Allegheny County property tax …

Change in Allegheny County's population between 1998 and 2008:

Change in Allegheny County's incarcerated population between 1998 and 2008:

Sources: Helen Lynch, Allegheny County Criminal Court Administrator (prison count does not include alternate sentencing facilities); Gov. Corbett's proposed 2012-2013 budget; Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics;  Allegheny County Jail Collaborative

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson