The South continues to lead in U.S. prison population growth, and the rising costs of incarceration are taking a significant toll on state budgets. The Associated Press reported this month that Kentucky state officials with budget woes are looking to reduce the amount of money the state spends on prisons.

Kentucky's prison population has increased rapidly in recent years. A study released earlier this year by the PewCenter on the States found that Kentucky has experienced the nation's largest prison population increase - it grew by 12 percent to 22,400 inmates. That number could reach nearly 31,000-an increase of 40 percent-over the next decade, the report found.

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has called on a group of legal authorities from across the state to find ways to relieve the prison system's financial burden on taxpayers. "It is time that we take a serious look at our sentencing guidelines, our penal code, and all of the related items to try to figure out ways to appropriately punish people, make sure the public is protected, and find some alternatives that are less expensive than just putting somebody in prison," Beshear told the AP.

On

a national level, the UnitedState's prison population continues to surge. This month the Washington Post reported, citing statistics from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, that the number of people under supervision in the nation's criminal justice system rose to 7.2 million in 2006, the highest ever. The Washington Post also found that states were spending an estimated cost of $45 billion to house and monitor offenders as they go in and out of jails and prisons.

The 2008 PewCenter report also found that one percent of U.S. adults are behind bars, a historic high. The United States is still the world's incarceration leader in inmates per capita (750 per 100,000 people). But when it came to locking people up, Louisiana led the South, and the South led the nation. Here are some more findings from the 2008 PewCenter report:

* Ten of the 20 states with the highest incarceration rates are in the South.
* The South's prison population grew from 623,563 to 641,024-a rise of 2.8 percent.
* The four states with the highest rates of incarceration were all in the South-Louisiana, with 1,138 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents, Georgia (1,021), Texas (976), and Mississippi (955).
* Southern states continue to add numbers to their rolls. Florida added 4,447 persons to its state facilities, Georgia added 2,413, and Virginia added 1,867 state inmates.
* Texas has the second largest prison population (following California)

Since 1980, the country's prison population has quadrupled to more than two million, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. Advocates have long argued that the South has traditionally spent less on the kinds of social programs that tend to keep people out of prison and less on community-based alternatives to prisons once people offend.

Yet, with the rising prison rates and their resulting costs to state budgets, many Southern states like Kentucky may be forced to start looking for alternatives to incarceration.

"The [Kentucky] prison population has grown to the point that it's getting close to costing half a billion dollars," Charles Geveden, deputy secretary of Kentucky's Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, told the AP. Geveden will be heading one of the panels set up by Kentucky Gov. Beshear to study the prison issue. Geveden's panel will be looking at, among other things, finding ways of reducing the number of people who re-offend. Some answers could include offering more treatment, education and job training while people are in prison, Geveden told the AP.