More Money Going to Prisons, Eating Up Funding for Education


In the funding battle between prisons and schools, prisons are winning an increasing share of public money.

A new report details the large quantities of money spent on prison systems and its effect on state budgets. The report, Changing Priorities: State Criminal Justice Reforms and Investments in Education, suggests that states should invest more into the public education system and less into maintaining prison systems.  Doing so, it says, will strengthen the economy within each state over time.

An extra $28 billion on average would be added to state budgets if they were to decrease prison spending to match levels from the 1980’s.  That money could be spent on a number of public investments, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Prisons in most states are seeing historically high populations.  Since 1978, 38 states have seen their prison populations more than triple in size.  The costly growth continued even after crime rates began to fall in the early 1990s.  As the population becomes larger, spending has increased from $20 billion per year to $47 billion, making corrections spending the third largest category in most states, right behind education and health care.

While prison spending increases, education spending continues to experience cutbacks, especially in low-income areas.  General funding per K-12 student has dropped below that spent before the recession in at least 30 states.  For 14 states, that number has seen a drop of larger than 10%.

The higher education system has seen even larger drops in funding.  Since the recession, the average amount set aside per student has dropped an average of 23%.  More funding was given to corrections than to the higher education system in 11 states in 2013.

Some states that have seen the biggest drop in education funding are those with the largest prison populations.

The report suggests that states work to reduce their incarceration rates through the reclassification of low-level felony and misdemeanors, promoting the use of other punishments such as fines in place of prison time, as well as the elimination of prison time for parole and probation violations.  Doing so would make more funds available for use in education.

The authors would like to see updates made to preschool systems.  Research has shown that children who attend a high-quality preschool program will in turn have higher cognitive skills and will likely earn more as adults.  Despite this, only about 1/3 of 3 and 4 year olds from low-income families are enrolled in preschool.  In addition, a reduction in class sizes for high-poverty schools would boost achievement rates, says the report.

Such reforms are already in place in some states such as New York, New Jersey and California, where the prison populations have dropped by an average of 25% and crime rates are continuing to fall.

While the authors realize that not all of the funding will go toward education, with money needed elsewhere as well, they remind readers that putting higher amounts of investment into the state education system will pay off in the long run.

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