Prison Spending Escalates

School budgets take back seat to corrections

By Phyllis Sides

Across the country, spending on education is being outpaced by escalating monies spent on prisons and corrections.

State spending on corrections in 1995 grew an astounding 13.3%, more than any other major area of state spending, according to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In contrast, the spending increase was 7.5% for elementary and secondary schools and 2.3% for higher education. Florida had the biggest imbalance, with a 50.2% spending increase for corrections compared to 5.4% for elementary and secondary education, and 8.2% for higher education.

The financial trade-off between prisons and schools has been particularly noticeable in terms of higher education, in part because public university systems rely on state far more than elementary and secondary schools. “The increased share of state budgets for prisons means that some other state activity is receiving a smaller share of state budgets,” notes the publication Post-secondary Education Opportunity.“We in higher education know who the loser is: in every one of the 50 states, the share of social resources allocated to higher education has shrunk while the share allocated to prisons has increased. And as state financial support for public education has shrunk, tuition charges to students have increased to offset the loss of state support.”

The correlation between prisons and education is perhaps best seen in California, one of several states to have enacted “three strikes and you’re out” legislation. This year, for the first time the state will spend more on prisons than for the University of California and the California state universities, according to the April 12 NewYork Times. In the last 15 years, the state has built 17 new prisons — the largest prison construction program in U.S. history.

“The cost of incarcerating a felon is approximately $22,300 a year — more than the state’s general-fund cost of educating two students at the University of California, three students at the California State University, or seven at the California Community Colleges,” said Warren H. Fox, executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission. In a report he wrote for the commission Fox said, “As a result, if new sources of state revenue are not tapped to fund the incarceration of thousands of additional felons, many thousands of students will be denied access to higher education — ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’ will mean ‘You’re Out of a College or University Education.’”

General revenue funds in state budgets are generally used for four major areas: education (K-12 and higher education), corrections, Medicaid, and AFDC. In an era of tight budgets and tax-cutting fervor, growth in one area tends to come at the expense of another area. After prisons, Medicaid expenditures grew the most in 1994, according to the NCSL report. K-12 expenditures, which rose more than higher education funds, increased in part due to the growing student population in the United States. Enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools grew in the last 10 years from 36.5 million to 40.1 million, according to National Education Association.

The jump in corrections spending coincides with a “lock-em up” approach to crime that has caused the number of people jailed in this country to increase an average of 8.6% annually since 1980, according to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin released this August. Almost 1.5 million people were incarcerated in 1994 in state and federal prisons and local jails in the United States, almost doubling the number of people in custody since 1980.

State prison populations expanded by at least 10% in 16 states. Texas reported the largest growth, 28%, followed by Georgia with 20%, the Bulletin said. Internationally, the United States had the second highest incarceration rate of the 52 countries for which data were available in 1992-93, surpassed only by Russia.

The number of people under the jurisdiction of the correctional system is even higher. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, a record 5.1 million Americans were either in jail or on probation or parole at the end of 1994. Currently, there are more African Americans in jail than in college, and one in four young African-American men is either incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.

These numbers do not reflect an increase in crime, but changes in public policy, harsher sentences, and the “three strikes and you’re out” laws, according to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C., that advocates alternatives to incarceration. At the federal level, for example, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 has significantly lengthened sentences and increased the number of people incarcerated for minor drug offenses.

Minorities have been particularly affected by such developments. The Bureau of Justice reports that between 1980 and 1993, the number of African American men in jail grew 217%. In relation to the total population of the United States, Blacks were seven times more likely than whites to be jailed in a state or federal prison by the end of 1993. Hispanics, who may be of any race, are the fastest growing minority group in our jails and prisons, accounting for 14.3% of state and federal inmates in 1993. Overall, on Dec. 31, 1993, nearly two-thirds of all sentenced prison inmates were Black, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic, according to the Bureau of Justice.

Critics of increased spending on prisons at the expense of education note there are clear links between the two issues. For example, those who do not complete high school are far more likely to end up imprisoned, according to a article in the October 1994 issue of (Postsecondary Education Opportunity). In 1991, the latest year for which figures were available, 65% of all state prisoners had not graduated from high school, the article said. Overall, the incarceration rate in state prisons was 15 times greater for high school dropouts than for a person with at least some college education.

“There is no question that the more skills a person has the less tempted they will be by crime,” notes Mauer of the Sentencing Project. “They will have more opportunity.”

Public concern with politicians’ preference for building prisons rather than schools led to a demonstration in Chicago on Aug. 27, when more than 2,500 people protested the new $100 million addition to the Cook County Jail.

“There is not a black college in America with as much money in it as that new jail,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the crowd.

The demonstrators called for a new “national urban policy” emphasizing jobs and education over prisons, according to a report in TheNewYork Times. “If this were Italy, we would call this Fascism,” Jackson said. “Here we call it conservatism: a plan to lock up our youth and not build them up.”

Mauer also underscores the racial dimensions of society’s emphasis on prisons as a solution to social problems. “As many commentators have noted, were one in four young white under some type of criminal justice supervision, we would surely witness a national mobilization to address the causes of such a tragic situation,” Mauer wrote in a recent article for the journal Social Justice. “Instead, what we see is the perpetuation of the vicious cycle of the criminalization of African-American males and repressive criminal justice policies.”