U.S. Education Department has released a new analysis of federal data according to which state and local spending on prisons and jails has grown as much as three times over the past three decades as compared to spending on public education for preschool through high school.
From 1980 to 2013, state and local spending on public schools doubled, from $258 billion to $534 billion, according to the analysis. Over the same period, the number of people incarcerated in state and local prisons, and spending increased by more than four times, from $17 billion to $71 billion.
State-level data was collected or reported by several federal statistic agencies – the National Center for Education Statistics, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Over the 33-year period, all of the 50 states spent less for education but some states like Massachusetts and Texas increased expenditure on prisons by 149 percent and 850 percent respectively. These increases were in comparison to education spending which grew in Michigan just 18 percent and in Nevada 326 percent.
The report said that United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Research has found the increases in the prison population from 490,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2014 was due in part to crackdown on drug crimes and often lengthy mandatory minimum sentence laws. Many of the laws are slowly being repealed or revised like the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York City.
The analysis comes amid growing bipartisan agreement about the need for criminal justice reform, and argues that taxpayers and public safety would be better served by redirecting investments from incarceration to public schools. The department said that increasing the amount of money state and local governments spend on educating students could help decrease the jail population.
“These findings should give us all a reason to pause and provide a lens through which we can examine our values as communities and as a country,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said.
“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons” he added.
“Reducing incarceration rates and redirecting some of the funds currently spent on corrections in order to make investments in education that we know work,” the Department of Education report said, “could provide a more positive and potentially more effective approach to both reducing crime and increasing opportunity among at-risk youth, particularly if in the PK-12 context the redirected funds are focused on high-poverty schools.”
“A variety of studies have suggested that investing more in education, particularly targeted toward at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that high incarceration rates impose on individuals, families, and communities,” it says.
Spending money on prisons is a poor investment as compared to spending money on education. Some neighborhoods have seen large sections of their population sent to prisons in the past several decades. Tax payers spend a million dollars to keep these inmates in prison. The so-called million-dollar blocks can be desolate places, full of “children who are missing their parents, households that are missing their breadwinners, [and] families who must support returning offenders who are now much harder to employ.” Children have an even harder time escaping their circumstances, creating a vicious cycle.
“These aren’t just statistics. When I think about the lives of those who are incarcerated, I can’t help but feel disheartened,” Education Secretary John King said.
“I can’t help but think about their families, spouses, sons, daughters and parents - or about the art not created; the entrepreneurial ideas that may never reach the drawing board; the classrooms these Americans will never lead; and the discoveries they’ll never make.”
According to King, more than two-thirds of state prison inmates dropped out of high school. Back in 2010, research from Pew also found that young black men between ages 20 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED are more likely to be in jail than to have a job.
King also cited research showing a relationship between education rates and incarceration rates: A 10-percent increase in high school graduation rates leads to a 9-percent decrease in the rates of criminal arrest, and reduces murder and assault rates by 20 percent.
Things can be changed. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that relatively inexpensive means, like putting at-risk kids in summer jobs programs, can have a much more dramatic effect on crime rates than simply locking them up.
One study also found that imprisoned people who participated in high-quality correctional education – including postsecondary correctional education – were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not participate in correctional education programs.
In September, King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, had called on states and cities to dramatically reduce incarceration for nonviolent crimes and use the estimated $15 billion in savings to substantially raise teacher pay in high-poverty schools.
“With a move like this, we’d not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we’d signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation’s teachers what they are worth,” Duncan said at the time. “That sort of investment wouldn’t just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and on our civic life.”