Spending on prisons soars above investment in schools

Spending on prisons soars above investment in schools

(District of Columbia) Spending on prisons and jails has increased nearly three times as fast as investments in K-12 schools, according to a new analysis of state and local government budgets by the U.S. Department of Education.

While not perhaps too surprising given the many mandatory sentencing laws approved by voters and state lawmakers since the mid-1980s, the numbers provide a striking illustration of how billions of dollars in taxpayer resources are being used.

Expenditures on K-12 schools by state and local governments increased 107 percent from 1990 to 2013, from $258 billion to $534 billion.

During the same period, total spending on correctional activities by the same agencies jumped by 324 percent, from $17 billion to $71 billion.

Four states reported spending increases of at least 500 percent on jails and prisons during the study period – Wyoming at 712 percent, New Mexico at 704 percent and Idaho at 701 percent. Texas had the largest percentage increase, escalating 850 percent.

Meanwhile, just three states reported spending increases of at least 200 percent on schools during the thirty year study period: New Hampshire at 202 percent, Georgia at 224 percent and Nevada at 326 percent.

The report, which was released earlier this month, comes as the Obama administration continues to press Congress on an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system, which holds the distinction of having the highest prison population rate in the world.

“The school-to-prison pipeline traps too many girls and boys who should be learning in supportive environments and instead sends them to juvenile detention,” Valerie Jarrett, senior White House advisor, said in a press call last week. “And because there are fewer resources for schools, job training or economic development, cycles of poverty and incarceration continue unabated.”

According to the 2015 census, the population of the United States was close to 321 million people – or roughly 4.5 percent of the 7.1 billion people on earth. At the same time, however, the U.S. had a prison population of almost 2.3 million–about 22 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, the International Centre for Prison Studies reported.

While ‘get-tough’ legislation approved in the 1980s and 1990s was intended to be a deterrent to crime, much of the growth in the U.S. prison population has taken place in the last two decades.

Administration officials were careful to make the point that greater investment in the nation’s schools would have more impact on lowering crime and prison populations than stiff sentencing rules.

Research has clearly established a strong link between poor educational outcomes and jail. A 2009 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about two-thirds of all state prison inmates in the U.S. did not finish high school.

A 2001 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates may result in 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates – a finding that supports plenty of additional research, according to the Department of Education.

Other highlights from the report:

  • All states had lower expenditure growth rates for K–12 education than for corrections, and in the majority of the states, the rate of increase for corrections was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for education.
  • During the study period, Massachusetts had the lowest overall increase in correctional spending at 149 percent; while the state almost doubled its spending rate on school at 86 percent.
  • When expenditures were adjusted for population change, the increases in both state and local corrections expenditures and K–12 education expenditures were smaller. However, even after accounting for changes in population, growth in corrections expenditures outpaced K–12 spending growth in all but two states.
  • In 24 states, the growth rate in per capita corrections spending was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for per-pupil K–12 education spending.
  • After adjusting for population change, a few states had similar growth rates for corrections and education spending, and two states actually increased per pupil expenditures on K–12 education faster than per capita corrections spending.

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