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How Prisons Overtook Schools as the Foremost American Institutions

Schools are paying the price for our fear.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

If, as the idiom goes, money indeed does talk, then state and local governments in the United States have a very important announcement: They care more about felons than schoolchildren.

That’s the alarming conclusion of a new report from the U.S. Department of Education, which shows that state and local government spending between 1979 and 2013 on incarcerating citizens has increased at three times the rate of expenditures on K-12 education for taxpayers—a 324 percent increase ($17 to $71 billion) for prisons and jails, compared to a 107 percent increase ($258 to $534 billion) for primary and secondary schools. More alarmingly, expenditures on jails and prisons rose 89 percent during that same time period while spending on post-secondary education like community colleges and public universities remained totally flat. Prison seems to be a better investment for states.

(Graph: Department of Education)

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. America’s mass incarceration rate has increased from 131 to 471 per 100,000 residents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (for state and federal jurisdictions alone; with private prisons, it’s more like 716 per 100,000, per the Washington Post), and states are, in large part, responsible.

(Chart: Datawrapper)

According to the BJS, state incarceration rates jumped from 119 to 412 per 100,000 Americans. As Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum writes, federal prisons only account for some 13 percent of the country’s overall prison population, making it difficult to blame federal programs like the Clintons’ much-maligned Crime Bill for the rise of America’s mass incarceration problem. Regardless of the cause, the result is no less alarming: According to a June 2016 report from the Brennan Center for Justice, there are now 2.3 million people living behind bars in America’s prison, a whopping 500 percent increase over the last four decades.

But why? There’s one federal program you can blame: the rise of mandatory minimums in the aftermath of the cocaine overdose of Len Bias, an all-American basketball star whose death during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s directly precipitated the adoption of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 by Congress. While intended to put the kibosh on big-ticket drug traffickers, the Economist points out that the disproportionately harsh punishments for possessing small quantities of narcotics “kept America’s prison population growing even as its crime rate declined” — which it did, from 47 victims per 1,000 Americans in 1973 to 15 in 2009, according to Gallup.

(Graph: The Hamilton Project)

The result, according to the Department of Education report, is that schools are paying the price for our fear. The growth rate in per capita spending on corrections was more than 100 points higher than that per K-12 student in 24 states, according to the report, meaning the country is spending increasingly large sums of taxpayer money on prisoners rather than pupils. And, on average, some 46 states decreased their spending on college tuitions for students at public universities by around 28 percent during the same time period; by contrast, per capita expenditures on inmates jumped by some 44 percent.

Schools are literally going broke, but state organs of discipline and punishment are apparently rolling in dough — and, as it turns out, incarceration isn’t even an effective strategy at deterring crime. “A large body of economic research finds that incarceration has a limited capacity to reduce crime, and that the effectiveness of incarceration declines as the incarcerated population grows,” the authors of the report write. “Because the U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world, the impact of incarceration in the U.S. is particularly weak relative to investing in other crime control policies.”

More police on the streets may help cut down on the crime rate, sure, but a 2015 report from the Brennan Center for Justice showed that locking people up only drains resources from other potential solutions—including providing educational opportunities to pursue. Luckily, this is the very solution the Department of Education advocates:

Reducing incarceration rates and redirecting some of the funds currently spent on corrections in order to make investments in education that we know work — including significantly increasing teacher salaries for great teachers willing to work in hard-to-staff schools, increasing access to high-quality preschool, providing greater educational opportunity for students seeking a higher education, and for those individuals who are incarcerated, providing access to high-quality correctional education — could provide a more positive and potentially more effective approach to both reducing crime and increasing opportunity among at-risk youth, particularly if in the PK–12 context the redirected funds are focused on high-poverty schools.

States may already be catching on to the canard of their bloated prisons. The Brennan Center report notes that crime tends to decrease alongside mass incarceration: The U.S. saw a 7 percent decrease in imprisonment since 2006, accompanied by a 23 percent decrease in crime. So go ahead, lawmakers, and maybe let a few loose collars go. Who knows: You might even save a buck.