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.

Damian Dovarganes / AP / File
In this 1996 file photo, inmates at the Los Angeles North County Correctional Facility turn their faces against the wall after being advised that a news media tour is visiting. The Los Angeles County jail system, called the 'free world's largest lockup,' had 20,000 inmates in a space designed for about half that many.

Sixth-graders glimpse a stark choice when they climb aboard a specially-equipped school bus that’s touring Mississippi: Stay in school, or you might end up in a jail cell like the one replicated at the back of the bus, complete with sink and toilet.

State lawmakers, too, need to make better choices if they want more kids to end up with diplomas instead of criminal records, the NAACP argues in a report released today.

Over the past two decades, states’ spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of spending on higher education, notes the report, “Misplaced Priorities.” In 2009, while K-12 and higher education spending declined during the recession, 33 states spent more discretionary dollars on prisons than they had the year before.

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The overall annual price tag for incarceration, youth detention, and parole in the United States: nearly $70 billion – of which $50 billion is spent at the state level.

The current system largely warehouses people who need treatment for drug and mental health problems, while at the same time taking dollars away from education, one of the best ways society can prevent crime, the report says.

“We need to cut bait with failed, so-called ‘tough on crime’ policies and embrace proven ‘smart on crime’ policies [by] shifting from incarceration to treatment for the low-level, nonviolent drug offenders that are crowding our prisons,” says NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous.

Critics of such a policy shift raise concerns that it sends a message that crime, and its victims, won’t be taken seriously.

“To suggest that there should be no consequences or reduced consequences for hurting other people or taking their property is nonsensical,” says James Pasco, executive director of the Legislative Advocacy Center of the Fraternal Order of Police. He agrees society should do better preventing crime, but says that many of the people in jail for what the report characterizes as minor crimes actually pleaded down from more serious crimes.

A diverse set of business, law enforcement, and education leaders from across the political spectrum endorsed the NAACP's report, including Rod Paige, secretary of Education under President George W. Bush; Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus; and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The civil rights group also unveiled a public-awareness campaign featuring airport billboards with messages such as: “Welcome to America, home of 5% of the world’s people and 25% of the world’s prisoners.”

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.

“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.”

Several states, including New York, have had success in changing sentencing policies and reducing their prison populations while also seeing crime rates go down, says the NAACP’s Mr. Jealous.

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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