The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The states that spend more money on prisoners than college students

(Benjamin C. Tankersley/For The Washington Post)
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Since 1990, state and local spending on prisons and jails has risen more than three times faster than spending on schools, according to a new Department of Education report released Thursday.

Driving that disparity is the unprecedented rise in the incarcerated population over that time period, due in large part to the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing policies designed to lock people up for long periods of time. The United States is now home to less than 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of the world's imprisoned people.

The Department of Education report traces how that shift has impacted state and local budgets. Prison spending is still a fraction of overall pre-K through 12 education spending: States spend $71 billion on prisons and $534 billion on schools each year. But that combined state and local prison budget is now over an eighth the size of the school budget. Back in 1990, prison spending was a sixteenth the size of education spending.

"Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited," said Education Secretary John B. King Jr. in a press release accompanying the report. "We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons."

While prison spending has risen three times as quickly as school spending nationally, in some states the disparities are far greater. In Colorado, prison spending rose five times faster than school spending. Prison spending grew six times more quickly in South Dakota and seven times in Wyoming. In Texas, where the disparity is greatest, prison spending grew at nearly eight times the rate as school spending.

The disparities between prisons and higher education spending are even starker. State spending on colleges and universities has remained roughly flat, in inflation-adjusted dollars, since 1990. But spending on prisons has nearly doubled. There are now 18 states where taxpayers spend more on jails and prisons than they do on colleges and universities.

Spending money on prisons is a particularly poor investment relative to spending money on education. Some urban neighborhoods have seen large swaths of their population relocated to prisons in the past several decades. These so-called million-dollar blocks — where taxpayers have spent a million dollars or more keeping former neighborhood residents locked up in prison — can be desolate places, full of "children who are missing their parents, households that are missing their breadwinners, [and] families who must support returning offenders who are now much harder to employ," as my colleague Emily Badger wrote last year. And as families in these neighborhoods are hollowed out by aggressive incarceration policies, children have an even harder time escaping their circumstances, creating a vicious cycle.

It doesn't have to be this way. Recent studies have shown, for instance, that relatively cheap interventions — like putting at-risk kids in summer jobs programs — can have a much more dramatic effect on crime rates than simply locking them up.

"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 pre-K-12 context the redirected funds are focused on high-poverty schools," the Education Department report concludes.

Our skyrocketing prison bill, in other words, is highly counterproductive. We could save money, reduce violent crime and increase economic activity — all by simply redirecting prison funds into smarter investments on education. But as things stand now, taxpayers are getting a raw deal on criminal justice spending when they could be getting a free lunch.