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Since 1980, spending on prisons has grown three times as much as spending on public education

An inmate looks out from his cell at Corcoran State Prison in California. (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
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State and local spending on prisons and jails has grown three times as much over the past three decades as spending on public education for preschool through high school, according to a new analysis of federal data by the U.S. Education Department.

The analysis, released Thursday, comes amid growing bipartisan agreement about the need for criminal justice reform, and argues that taxpayers and public safety would be better served by redirecting investments from incarceration to public schools.

“A variety of studies have suggested that investing more in education, particularly targeted toward at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that high incarceration rates impose on individuals, families, and communities,” it says.

Read the full analysis, “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education”

From 1980 to 2013, state and local spending on public schools doubled, from $258 billion to $534 billion, according to the analysis. Over the same period, the number of people incarcerated in state and local prisons more than quadrupled, and spending also increased by more than four times, from $17 billion to $71 billion.

“These findings should give us all a reason to pause and provide a lens through which we can examine our values as communities and as a country,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a call with reporters Thursday.

In September, King’s predecessor, Arne Duncan, called on states and cities to dramatically reduce incarceration for nonviolent crimes and use the estimated $15 billion in savings to substantially raise teacher pay in high-poverty schools.

Education Secretary urges criminal justice reform, wants $15 billion to go to teachers

“With a move like this, we’d not just make a bet on education over incarceration, we’d signal the beginning of a long-range effort to pay our nation’s teachers what they are worth,” Duncan said at the time. “That sort of investment wouldn’t just make teachers and struggling communities feel more valued. It would have ripple effects on our economy and on our civic life.”

The new report found wide variation in spending on prisons and schools among the states: Total corrections spending grew 149 percent in Massachusetts, for example, compared with 850 percent in Texas. Total education spending rose from 18 percent in Michigan to 326 percent in Nevada.

Even taking population and enrollment changes into account, there were striking disparities in the rate of spending increases. The rate of increase in per capita corrections spending outpaced the rate of increase in per-pupil education spending in every state but two, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. In 23 states, per capita spending rose more than twice as fast as per-pupil spending.

“These misguided priorities make us less safe, cost us an exorbitant amount of money and betray our core values,” Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, said on the call. “Where there are few resources for schools, job training and economic development, cycles of poverty and incarceration continue unabated.”

The White House Council of Economic Advisers released a report in April concluding that a greater investment in education and raising the minimum wage are much more effective ways to protect the public than spending $80 billion a year on incarceration. Despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population, America holds about a quarter of the world’s prison population, with over 2.2 million people behind bars across the nation. About 70 million Americans have a criminal record that can make it difficult to get a job, vote or otherwise participate in society.

Jarrett said there is strong bipartisan support in Congress for legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and give judges greater discretion in sentencing. The bill would also reinvest savings from criminal justice reform into public safety programs.

“We know that mass incarceration is not good for our country and does not make us safer. It is long past time for us to come together across party lines at the federal level and do something about it,” she said.