In "Choosing Prisoners Over Pupils" [op-ed, July 6] Andrew Block and Virginia Weisz suggest that Virginia places a higher priority on spending for correctional facilities than for public schools. As chairman of the public safety subcommittee of the state Senate Finance Committee, I believe protecting law-abiding Virginians from the criminal element is among the most important responsibilities of government. Adequate state support for law enforcement, corrections and the courts is one of my top priorities.
But I can also assure you that support in the state budget for educating the next generation of Virginians is an even higher priority. Block and Weisz's central point -- that prison spending is a higher priority than elementary and secondary education funding -- is just plain wrong. In Virginia's fiscal 2006 budget, state general fund spending for the Education Department is just under $5 billion, compared with just over $1 billion for all of adult and juvenile corrections. By any measure education spending is growing faster than prison spending.
From fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2006, general fund appropriations for the Corrections Department will have increased 26.8 percent, from $626.5 million to $794.2 million. Appropriations for the Juvenile Justice Department will have barely increased at all, from $185.3 million to $188.6 million, just 1.8 percent. And, appropriations for the Correctional Education Department (both adult and juvenile), will have grown only 16 percent, from $39.9 million to $46.3 million.
I call this modest growth. Between the governor and the General Assembly, Virginia made significant budget cuts in this area during the recession, including closing prisons, eliminating programs and positions, and laying off state employees. These painful cuts have resulted in, for example, cutbacks in mental health and drug treatment programs, and stretching security staff to the limit.
Now, again using 2000-06, let's compare appropriations for education to those for corrections. Basic state aid for kindergarten through 12th grade will have increased 44.5 percent. State support for all direct aid for public education will have grown 36 percent. Saying that Virginia is committed to providing the best education possible is an understatement.
Block and Weisz are apprehensive that Virginia is spending $70,000 per youth per year to incarcerate juveniles in state facilities. The actual fiscal 2003 cost is $57,599 per youth for juvenile justice, plus $14,019 for the correctional education, since school is mandatory for juveniles who are wards of the state.
Why so expensive? First, our juvenile facilities are necessarily smaller. Housing 1,000 juveniles in one facility is not the way to provide effective treatment. Our juvenile facilities hold 40 to 280 offenders. Second, they also have more intensive treatment programs, such as those for violent sex offenders, and thus require higher staffing standards than adult prisons. In addition, since 2000, state law has required that a juvenile offender have committed either a felony or four Class 1 misdemeanors to be sentenced to a state facility. As a result, population growth in state facilities began to slow down four years ago. However, the offenders sentenced to these facilities have committed more serious crimes, and they're staying longer.
The Juvenile Justice Department is trying to operate eight facilities on a budget for seven. If anything, we need to be restoring some of the budget cuts in our juvenile programs.
Overall, I think we're doing the right thing in Virginia to provide an effective corrections system, but we need to do more. Although I do not claim to be an expert on K-12 funding, I do know this: State support for public education in Virginia has been growing faster than state support for corrections. Block and Weisz note that Virginia ranks only 43rd in state spending on public education, but they don't mention that we rank 22nd in total spending, including both state and local funds.
Between fiscal years 1990 and 2003, the number of elementary and secondary school pupils grew 18 percent (from 978,000 to more than 1.15 million), and the cost per pupil increased over 72 percent (from $5,255 to $9,055, including both state and local dollars). So since 1990 the amount we spent per pupil has increased more than 31/2 times as fast as the amount we spent per inmate in our state prisons. This has occurred while Virginia has been a national leader in developing alternatives to incarceration for lower-risk, nonviolent offenders. It's only fair to say that Virginia has been putting and will continue to put a higher spending priority on public education than on prisons. And this is how it should be.
-- Kenneth W. Stolle
The writer is a Republican state senator.