Education Funding

Unlikely Allies Call for Shifting Spending from Prisons to Schools

By Nirvi Shah — April 08, 2011 4 min read
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The NAACP has joined forces with fiscally conservative groups, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, and others to persuade legislators and policymakers to shift the growing amount of money spent on prisons to education.

In a new report called “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” the NAACP compiled research and data from a variety of sources to show that, for years, many states have spent increasing amounts of their discretionary funds on prisons and less of that money on education.

“This multidecade trend of prioritizing incarceration over education is not sustainable,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said.

The NAACP presented the report here on Thursday along with leaders from Americans for Tax Reform, the American Conservative Union, the Executive Committee of Corrections USA, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, the president of the United States Student Association, and the head of California’s correctional officers union.

Citing research and data from the Pew Center on the States, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the National Association of State Budget Officers, and news reports, the report says that in 2009, as state general fund spending declined for kindergarten through 12th grade education and higher education, 33 states spent a bigger slice of those dollars on prisons than they had in 2008.

“This is a call not to be soft on crime,” said Mr. Paige, a former Houston schools superintendent who served in the administration of President George W. Bush.

“This is a call to be smarter on how we deal with crime,” he said. “There are people who need to be locked up. ... There are other people locked up who could be served in better ways.”

Billboards with statistics that point out that America’s population is 5 percent of the world, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and that America spends $88,000 a year to send one person to prison and about $9,000 a year to send one person to school will be popping up as part of the group’s efforts.

Their report notes that the majority of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States are minorities, people with mental health issues or a drug addiction, those with low levels of education, and people with a history of unemployment or underemployment. Although some states, including Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, have reformed their corrections systems and seen declines in their prison populations—and a lower crime rate in some cases, despite having fewer people locked up—their successes haven’t spread, according to the report.

While prison spending hasn’t always been examined closely by conservatives, it should be, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, based in Washington. He said they should ask, “Are we spending this money wisely? Are we getting our money’s worth?”

Ideas for Action

The report suggests about a dozen ideas to help states prioritize education over incarceration. They include: creating a commission to evaluate the criminal justice system and recommend reforms; forming reinvestment commissions that would identify ways to decrease prison populations and shift the savings from prison closures to education spending; eliminating disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine at the state and federal level; reforming sentencing so prisoners can earn earlier releases for participating in educational and vocational programs and drug and mental health treatment; supporting violence-reduction programs that use evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies for at-risk youth to prevent gang and other activity that could lead to involvement in criminal activity; and shortening prison terms for young offenders and helping them earn GEDs.

Part of the problem, said Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, based in Landsdowne, Va., is that the skills that people learn to survive in violent prisons can make them more dangerous when they leave—in some cases, more dangerous than when they entered.

“Yes, some of these people have broken our rules,” he said. “We should ... figure out a way to help them lead a responsible life.”

In response to shrinking higher education budgets, tuition in many states has risen, shifting more of the costs for attending colleges and universities to students and their families, the report says. That means a particularly heavy financial burden on working students and students from lower-income backgrounds.

“Prisons are winning the budget battle at the state-funding level,” said Lindsay McCluskey, president of the Washington-based U.S. Student Association. “These priorities send young people a loud and clear message,” she said, and don’t set the expectation that young people can succeed.

According to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, an Oskaloosa, Iowa-based group that specializes in educational access and equity, prisons saw the second-largest increase in the share of state and local government spending between 1980 and 2006 after healthcare, while spending for higher education declined.

Similarly, in 2008, a Pew Center on the States analysis of state spending patterns between 1987 and 2007 found that, after adjusting for inflation, higher education spending grew by 21 percent in that time, while spending on corrections grew by 127 percent.

The report also notes that, as the prison population has grown, researchers have noticed a significant number of people going to prison from a few neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods predominantly of color in major cities. In these communities, millions of dollars are being spent to incarcerate or monitor paroled residents, forming what the report calls “million-dollar blocks.”

In these neighborhoods, the report says, money spent on prison sentences is often the largest public-sector investment.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as Unlikely Allies Call for Shifting Spending from Prisons to Schools

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