Believe it or not, there were other things happening in Washington last week. While we were all swept up in the drama surrounding the government shutdown that never happened, the NAACP released a report on the disturbing inverse relationship between spending on prisons and schools. Not only are the statistics startling in “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” so is the group of people rallying around the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization’s push to adopt alternatives to incarceration.

NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous gave an extensive preview of the report on “Morning Joe” last Wednesday.

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“A poor drug addict needs the same thing as a rich drug addict. They need Betty Ford,” Jealous noted. “They don’t need prison. Sending them to rehab costs less.” He added, “The money that we use to spend on prisons that are failing, that are too big, when we could send people to rehab that costs less, we take from our kids, we take from our schools.” The NAACP report cites a 2008 Pew Center on States report that looked at state spending patterns between 1987 and 2007. “[A]fter adjusting for inflation, funding for higher education grew by a modest 21 percent, while corrections funding grew by 127 percent, six times the rate of higher education.”  

This explosion in the prison-industrial complex has led to some other astonishing statistics.

The United States is home to about 5 percent of the world’s population but has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

More African American men are entangled in the criminal-justice system today than were enslaved in 1850.  

Nearly $70 billion is spent each year to incarcerate people in prisons and jails, to imprison young people in detention centers and “youth prisons,” and to keep 7.3 million people under watch on parole and probation in our communities.

Low-income whites are also increasingly impacted by ineffective criminal justice laws and policies. For example, whites are now the fastest-growing group of drug prisoners in the United States, possibly as a result of the relatively new focus on methamphetamine use and trafficking.