State Spending on Prisons Outpacing School Funding

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

A new analysis released earlier this week by the US Department of Education has found that over the last 30 years, state and local spending on jails and prisons has increased at three times the rate of funding for public education for preschool through grade 12.

The report, “Trends in State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education,” found that a total of 23 states have increased per capita spending on corrections at a rate that is more than twice that of the increase in per-pupil spending for public education even after accounting for population changes.  Meanwhile, a total of seven states, including Idaho, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia, have increased their spending on jails and prisons at more than five times the rate that they did for P-12 education.

Higher education spending is also discussed in the report, with authors saying there has not been an increase in state and local spending on higher education since 1990 despite an increase in corrections spending by 89%.

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. “For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity. We must choose to make more investments in our children’s future. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Authors for the report look to make a connection between educational attainment and incarceration, noting that despite having just 5% of the world’s entire population, the United States accounts for 20% of the world’s incarcerated population.  Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show 75% of state prison inmates do not have a high school level education, with a separate study finding that black men between the ages of 20 and 24 who do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent are more likely to be imprisoned than they are employed.

Researchers go on to estimate that a 10% increase in high school graduation rates would result in a 9% decrease in criminal arrest rates.

“Mass incarceration does not make us safer. Yet for three decades, our country has prioritized spending on prisons instead of classrooms,” said Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama. “We can no longer afford this failure to invest in opportunity, only to lock up people once they’ve dropped out of school and turned to crime. These misguided priorities make us less safe and betray our values, and it is time we came together as a country to invest in our people and their capacity to contribute to society.”

Last fall, former US Education Secretary Arne Duncan pushed for states and communities to offer more support to teachers than they do for prison systems.  He suggested this happen by exploring alternative paths for non-violent offenders that do not place them in prison.  He estimated that doing so for even half of non-violent offenders would save close to $15 billion that could be instead put toward offering a 50% raise to all teachers and principals who work in the highest-needs schools and communities throughout the country.