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Taxing our kids to fund prisons

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What do schools and prisons have in common? They each require budget allocations, which establish and demonstrate our priorities. And each affects crime prevention. But the commonalities end there. Studies show that while quality education decreases crime, imprisonment actually increases crime; the ROI on prison spending is a losing proposition. In 2015, the United States placed 40th in the world in math and 25th in science. We need well-educated kids to become productive and law-abiding adults, and an educated workforce to remain competitive in a global economy. This requires significant investment in education.

Over the past several weeks, teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky have gone on strike to protest the lack of investment in education. Now Colorado teachers are striking. We’ve seen too many stories of children being taught in buildings that are falling apart, with books that are frighteningly out of date. Teachers have shared pictures of rats, cockroaches, mold and rotting books; a parent tweeted a photo of her daughter’s history book, in which George W. Bush was still president. This past winter, students in Baltimore had to wear coats in classrooms because their schools didn’t have heat.

{mosads}We can’t expect students to excel, to set and reach their goals, when we demonstrate with our spending choices that they aren’t our priority.


Research demonstrates that education is one of the soundest investments we can make, but we spend smaller portions of our budgets on it every year. If our kids and future actually are a priority, we need to reflect that in how we allocate limited resources. Yet, policymakers repeatedly send scarce tax dollars to one of the least effective investments — prisons.

At a time when more than half of Americans are willing to pay higher taxes to support education, states are spending extraordinary amounts to lock people up, even though incarceration has been shown to make us less safe, and is significantly more expensive, than community-based alternatives. And, in an ironic and troubling twist, Colorado legislators introduced a bill to jail striking teachers. Not only would Colorado be spending money on incarceration at the expense of education, Colorado would be spending money on locking up teachers who are protesting this failed public policy approach.

In the past 30 years, we’ve seen a shift in the way we allocate resources — spending on education has grown painfully slowly, compared to spending on incarceration. Between 1980 and 2013, education budgets grew by 58 percent in West Virginia, 69 percent in Oklahoma, and 102 percent in Kentucky; during that time there was an explosive growth of spending on incarceration with an increase of 483 percent in West Virginia, 341 percent in Oklahoma and 259 percent in Kentucky. Other states showed similar patterns during those years: Colorado saw a growth of 103 percent for education but 513 percent for corrections; Arizona spent 188 percent more for education but 491 percent more for corrections.

The explosion in prison costs isn’t because we’ve improved the quality of life in prison, but because we’ve implemented policies that needlessly warehouse more people, particularly poor people of color.

We’ve seen that spending more to warehouse people doesn’t lead to safer communities — for example, Oklahoma and Louisiana have among the highest incarceration rates while still having comparatively high crime rates.

This spending disparity isn’t inevitable. We have community-based programs that are significantly more effective, and cheaper, than incarcerating somebody. We could free up millions of dollars to invest in teachers and schools if we reduce our reliance on incarceration by shifting to community-based alternatives.

We must do this if we are to effectively spend our limited tax dollars. It’s time we held elected officials accountable for decisions that waste money, make us less safe and penalize our kids with a second-rate education. If we are serious about creating safer and healthier communities, where our kids can find good jobs and build healthy lives as responsible adults, we cannot keep spending our limited resources on incarceration at the expense of funding the best education in the world. We need to get our priorities straight if we want to create a better, safer, future for ourselves and our kids.

Marc Schindler is executive director of Justice Policy Institute and a dedicated justice system reformer, having served as a partner at Venture Philanthropy Partners, chief of staff and interim director at the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, and staff attorney with the Youth Law Center. He also is a former Baltimore public defender.

Tags Incarceration in the United States Public education in the United States

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