States Are Prioritizing Prisons Over Education, Budgets Show

10/30/2014 11:29 am ET | Updated Oct 30, 2014
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If state budget trends reflect the country's policy priorities, then the U.S. currently values prisoners over children, a new report suggests.

A report released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that the growth of state spending on prisons in recent years has far outpaced the growth of spending on education. After adjusting for inflation, state general fund spending on prison-related expenses increased over 140 percent between 1986 and 2013. During the same period, state spending on K-12 education increased only 69 percent, while higher education saw an increase of less than six percent.

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State spending on corrections has exploded in recent years, as incarceration rates have more than tripled in a majority of states in the past few decades. The report says that the likelihood that an offender will be incarcerated has gone up across the board for all major crimes. At the same time, increases in education spending have not kept pace. In fact, since 2008, spending on education has actually declined in a majority of states in the wake of the Great Recession.

According to the brief, rates of violent crime and property crime have actually fallen over the years, even while incarceration rates have risen. Therefore, it appears that states' more aggressive incarceration policies are behind the higher prison rates.

Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report and a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, suggested that education spending could actually help lower incarceration rates. “When you look at prisoners, people who get sent to prison and their educational levels, [the levels are] typically much lower than individuals who are not sent to prison," he told The Huffington Post. “Being a high school dropout dramatically increases your likelihood of being sent to prison.”

“Spending so many dollars locking up so many people, those are dollars that inevitably cannot be used to provide pre-K slots … or financial aid for those who want to go to college,” Mitchell added.

The report suggests that states' spending practices are ultimately harming their economies, while not making the states especially safer. The authors ultimately conclude that if “states were still spending the same amount on corrections as they did in the mid-1980s, adjusted for inflation, they would have about $28 billion more available each year for education and other productive investments.”

“The types of investments to help people out of poverty and break that school-to-prison pipeline are investments in early education, helping youth stay in school and getting them college campuses,” said Mitchell.

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