Educate or incarcerate? NAACP pushes states to shift priorities.
While education spending declined during the recession, most states increased prison spending, according to a new report from the NAACP.
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The spending balance hasn’t always tipped so far toward prisons. In California, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger noted in a speech last year that thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and three percent went to prisons. By 2010, the priorities had flipped: 11 percent was going prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.Skip to next paragraph
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“Misplaced Priorities” also highlights three cities where neighborhoods with high prison rates significantly overlap neighborhoods with low-performing schools. In Houston, 5 out of 6 lower-performing schools (based on math scores) are in the areas with the highest percentage of incarcerated residents. In Los Angeles, the figure is 69 out of 90; in Philadelphia, 23 out of 35.
While Houston public schools face a budget shortfall of at least $30 million this year, the cost of incarcerating Houston residents is about $500 million a year, the report notes.
Building more prisons gives people “a false sense of security,” says Dick Molpus, an education advocate in Jackson, Miss., who founded the national group Parents for Public Schools. “By the time someone fills that jail cell, they’ve already committed a crime.... And the way to really make society safer is to make sure everyone participates in it, and that’s by making sure they have a decent school to go to.”
In Mississippi, 3 out of 4 inmates don’t have a high school diploma, Mr. Molpus says, and yet there’s always a big fight in the legislature over funding education.
Nationally, if the trend of spending more on prisons and less on education continues, Molpus says, “we’ll see [what you see] in third- and fourth-world countries, where the ‘haves’ live behind their own fences and have their own guards and they essentially become prisoners themselves.”
Among the changes recommend in the report:
- Reform drug sentencing: Eliminate mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses, and give more people treatment or counseling. In addition, remove disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentences.
- Increase “earned-time” initiatives: Allow more prisoners to earn an earlier release by participating in educational and vocational programming and treatment.
- Shorten prison terms for youthful offenders: Send them to intervention programs designed to address root causes of their behavior, such as lack of education, unemployment, or child abuse.
Better education can save society money in the long run, “but our refusal to make sane investments in these kids has led to an explosion in the costs of our criminal justice system,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on narrowing the achievement gap.
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