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May 2, 2018

Spotlighting modern tendency to invest more in prisons than in schools

Marc Schindler has this new commentary at The Hill headlined "Taxing our kids to fund prisons." Here are excerpts:

What do schools and prisons have in common? They each require budget allocations, which establish and demonstrate our priorities. And each affects crime prevention. But the commonalities end there. Studies show that while quality education decreases crime, imprisonment actually increases crime; the ROI on prison spending is a losing proposition. In 2015, the United States placed 40th in the world in math and 25th in science. We need well-educated kids to become productive and law-abiding adults, and an educated workforce to remain competitive in a global economy. This requires significant investment in education....

Research demonstrates that education is one of the soundest investments we can make, but we spend smaller portions of our budgets on it every year. If our kids and future actually are a priority, we need to reflect that in how we allocate limited resources.  Yet, policymakers repeatedly send scarce tax dollars to one of the least effective investments — prisons.

At a time when more than half of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes to support education, states are spending extraordinary amounts to lock people up, even though incarceration has been shown to make us less safe, and is significantly more expensive, than community-based alternatives.  And, in an ironic and troubling twist, Colorado legislators introduced a bill to jail striking teachers.  Not only would Colorado be spending money on incarceration at the expense of education, Colorado would be spending money on locking up teachers who are protesting this failed public policy approach.

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen a shift in the way we allocate resources — spending on education has grown painfully slowly, compared to spending on incarceration. Between 1980 and 2013, education budgets grew by 58 percent in West Virginia, 69 percent in Oklahoma, and 102 percent in Kentucky; during that time there was an explosive growth of spending on incarceration with an increase of 483 percent in West Virginia, 341 percent in Oklahoma and 259 percent in Kentucky. Other states showed similar patterns during those years: Colorado saw a growth of 103 percent for education but 513 percent for corrections; Arizona spent 188 percent more for education but 491 percent more for corrections.

The explosion in prison costs isn’t because we’ve improved the quality of life in prison, but because we’ve implemented policies that needlessly warehouse more people, particularly poor people of color.  We’ve seen that spending more to warehouse people doesn’t lead to safer communities — for example, Oklahoma and Louisiana have among the highest incarceration rates while still having comparatively high crime rates.

This spending disparity isn’t inevitable.  We have community-based programs that are significantly more effective, and cheaper, than incarcerating somebody.  We could free up millions of dollars to invest in teachers and schools if we reduce our reliance on incarceration by shifting to community-based alternatives.

We must do this if we are to effectively spend our limited tax dollars. It’s time we held elected officials accountable for decisions that waste money, make us less safe and penalize our kids with a second-rate education.  If we are serious about creating safer and healthier communities, where our kids can find good jobs and build healthy lives as responsible adults, we cannot keep spending our limited resources on incarceration at the expense of funding the best education in the world.  We need to get our priorities straight if we want to create a better, safer, future for ourselves and our kids.

May 2, 2018 at 05:09 PM | Permalink


You can't help but notice the lack of any specific dollar amounts in the excerpt. To contrast, in California alone, the Governor's 2018-2019 budget included over $70 billion for education and $11 billion for corrections AND rehabilitation programs. One wonders why the author felt compelled to leave such information out...

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | May 2, 2018 6:29:37 PM

Well, Cal. prosecutor, let's ask a useful question to put those numbers in context. How many inmates are there in California, and how many school children? As of May 2nd, California had 129,149 inmates in its prisons. https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/Offender_Information_Services_Branch/WeeklyWed/TPOP1A/TPOP1Ad180502.pdf
They had 6,228,235 students in public school in 2016-17.

Assume all of the 11 million was spent on incarcerated folks (which it isn't because some is spent on rehab). That's $85,172 per inmate and 11,239 per student. You could make a lot of positive changes in education with 1/11 of that money. A billion goes a long way.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 3, 2018 1:56:06 PM

Thanks for the response defendergirl. I would initially hope that you would allow a correction to your inmate #'s. As of yesterday's population count, there are 114519 inmates in the state's 34 adult institutions. The # you cite also counts those inmates that are in Community Corrections Facilities, Community Rehabilitative Program Placements, the Prisoner Mother Program, Female Community Re-entry Facility, Medical Parole, Alternative Custody Program and other such. The main reason the cost-per-inmate has risen so substantially is because so many fewer inmates are in prison. Please see my "fixed costs" comment below.

That being said, it would be nice if another billion would be provided to our schools. As an aside, I fear I am not as optimistic as you that "a lot of positive changes" could be made with increasing the education budget another 1.2%. As someone who had public education from K-12 and college & watched a stepson go thru K-12 in public schools, I have always thought that money is not as important as committed parents in determining a student's success.

But assuming you could cut that billion from the CDCR budget, just where do you propose to take it? The supermajority in Sacramento has already had a lesson regarding fixed costs which any student in Economics 1 knows. The state inmate population is below the artificial limit set by the 3 Judge Panel and has been since February of 2015. (Even the AG's Office is finally admitting that fact.) The Board of Parole Hearings has implemented Elderly Parole, expanded Medical Parole, expanded and re-expanded Youthful Offender Parole, the so-called Nonviolent Second Strike Release program, Prop. 57 Early Release program, Compassionate Release, vastly expanded conduct credits (even for murderers), along with all the expensive programs listed above. Combined with Realignment-which keeps most felons out of prison, Prop. 36-which gutted the Three Strikes Law, Prop. 47-which turned most theft and drug possession offenses into misdemeanors AND all the efforts Sacramento has made to lessen punishment for repeat drug sellers, violent criminals who use firearms, etc., etc. etc. The Governor's appointments to BPH and their Executive Director have greatly increased the Lifer Parole release rate to the point that a lifer inmate (typically a murderer) who goes to a hearing has basically a 1-in-3 chance of being released.

At some point, I hope that you will consider the possibility that all these changes, done over the previous 7 years, have done just about as much as possible to keep criminals from going to prison. (Not that said supermajority won't keep trying to find new and ever-more outlandish ways...). At some point, it becomes the responsibility of the criminal to decide not to commit another crime, or at least one that won't send him or her to prison.

Put another way, you might consider that all these changes to California criminal sentencing have an effect. The criminals in our state certainly know about these changes and are taking advantage of it (and not in the way one might hope.) And that effect is far more dangerous than just leaving a car parked on the street in San Francisco...

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | May 3, 2018 6:12:44 PM

Correction and also most importantly a big one....'money is not as important as committed parents AND TEACHERS in determining a student's success'

Posted by: fred | May 3, 2018 7:14:17 PM

As the sibling of two public school teachers, I certainly should have remembered that fact. Thank you for the correction Fred.

Posted by: Cal. Prosecutor | May 3, 2018 7:49:27 PM

i agree that committed parents are key to success. But what about those kids that don't have that? We now know that development from birth to age 5 is critical to language, reading, social development and on and on. If we could take that billion dollars and spend it on quality preschool and pre-k and other early interventions, the payoff in higher graduation rates and lower levels of arrest and incarceration would be exponential. I believe the current data shows that every dollar spent on education saves society three dollars in other costs, like prison and social safety net programs. My public school district has pre-k for (almost) all children and preschool for low-income kids. Children with autism and other developmental challenges are identified and given supports earlier, which allows greater success in later grades.

Prison (at least the way Americans do it) has failed us as a tool. Some people who are violent need to be locked up, sure. But most people come out of prison more damaged than when they went in, having witnessed or been victims of abuse, fights, rape, been cut off from their families due to extortionate prices for phone calls and being housed far away from where they live, sicker because of the awful food and poor medical care, or with medically resistant HIV, TB and so on.

Any business with the failure rate prison has would have gone bankrupt long ago.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 4, 2018 10:51:09 AM

Hi, defendergirl. Spend a dollar on California education, get shit back, one of the worst educational performances in the world. Worse. This appalling performance is by students with excellent self esteem. They think they are doing well, and see no need to improve or to compete.

Spend a dollar on prison in California, get $40 back in damage prevented. There is no greater return on investment (ROI) in any human investment, anywhere, anytime in history. Buy a gun and rob a bank, the ROI is lower. The ROI on prison does not include collateral damage prevented, such as drops in real estate value.

This is simple 4th grade math. It is still within the level of lawyer math, which cannot fathom the 5th grade.

Posted by: David Behar | May 5, 2018 3:24:28 AM

This is simple 4th grade math. It is still within the level of lawyer math, which cannot fathom the 5th grade.

I see your back in rare form.....One would think it would take a bit to regress this far, but guess some just have the knack...

Posted by: MidWestGuy | May 6, 2018 3:40:07 PM

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