The hidden costs of funding prisons instead of schools

As state incarceration rates continue to rise across the country, so are cuts in higher education funding. 

Jenevieve Robbins/Texas Dept of Criminal Justice/Reuters
Lawmakers in 11 states are spending more on prisons and jails than their public colleges, according to a new report by American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Lawmakers in 11 states are spending more on prisons and jails than their public colleges, according to a report compiled by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

According to the report, state budgets for public universities have been cut about 20 percent since 2008 when recession hit, while funding for prisons has spiked 141 percent.  

That's solving the wrong side of the problem, argued Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a speech this week. "The linkage between education, or a lack thereof, and incarceration is powerful," he said.

"More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts," said Secretary Duncan, "and an African-American male between the ages of 20 and 24 without a high school diploma or GED has a higher chance of being imprisoned than of being employed."

A 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows a direct correlation between increased prison spending and cuts in education. Not surprisingly, states with the highest incarceration rates pull the most money from their schools.

And that drives up tuition at public universities, reports CNN. State funding "accounts for about half of a typical school's budget," CNN reports. "The other half comes from the federal government and tuition and fees."

According to the new AAAS report, the states that spend more on prisons than universities are Michigan, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

Earlier this week, Duncan proposed that if states spent more money on educating students, they would save on prison costs. 

In a speech delivered at the National Press Club in Washington, he proposed taking $15 billion from correctional facilities and instead allocating it to raising teacher salaries and funding mentor teachers in states’ most under-resourced schools.

"With a move like this, we'd not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we'd signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation's teachers what they are worth," Duncan said. "That sort of investment wouldn't just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and our civic life."

The Obama administration isn't alone in wanting to shrink prison populations. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been working to end mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent offenders – and the resulting explosive growth in the number and cost of prisons, The Christian Science Monitor reported

After decades in which Democrats and Republicans competed to burnish their tough-on-crime credentials, the conversation has shifted to the heavy social and financial costs of mass incarceration.

Since 1980, the US prison population has grown exponentially, increasing from about 250,000 to more than 1.5 million inmates in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The US leads the world in the percent of the population in prison, with some 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide but only 5 percent of the global population.

Investing in education could change that, argued Duncan. He cited a study that "found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would reduce murder and assault arrest rates by approximately 20 percent. And a one percent increase in male graduation rates would save up to $1.4 billion in the social costs of incarceration."

His proposal would set "a different priority—one that says we believe in great teaching early in our kids' lives, rather than courts, jails, and prisons later," said Duncan.

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