Priorities Gone Wrong: Prison Spending Skyrockets, Leaves School Spending Behind

The U.S. Department of Education just released a report, State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education, that reinforces what is known about the alarming explosion in the rate of incarceration in the United States.

The Education Department’s report is about budgets—across states and localities: “From 1979-80 to 2012-13, public PK (PreK)-12 expenditures increased by 107 percent (from $258 to $534 billion), while total state and local corrections expenditures increased by 324 percent (from $17-$71 billion)—triple the rate of increase in education spending…  All states had lower expenditure growth rates for PK-12 education than for corrections, and in the majority of the states, the rate of increase for corrections was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for education… In 24 states, the growth rate in per capita corrections spending was more than 100 percentage points higher than the rate for per-pupil PK-12 education spending.”  Finally, “At the postsecondary level, the contrast was even starker: from 1989-90 to 2012-13, state and local spending on corrections rose by 89 percent while state and local appropriations for higher education remained flat.”

The new report confirms the trend in K-12 education spending reported last winter by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.”  State governments are spending less on public education than they used to.  Most of the increases in education spending in the past few decades have been for special services mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The new report from the Department of Education further confirms the reality of the exploding rate of incarceration over recent decades: “(T)he number of people incarcerated in state and local correctional facilities more than quadrupled over the past few decades, rising from about 490,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2014, due in part to the enactment of additional, often lengthy mandatory minimum sentence laws. Incarceration rates have increased despite large decreases in crime rates, which declined by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014… (T)he U.S. has the largest incarcerated population in the world…”

Public education and racial justice advocates have been pressing school districts to address one factor that has contributed to growing incarceration of youths and young adults: school discipline policies that immediately involve the police rather than locating discipline procedures within the school.  Such policies have been shown to have contributed significantly to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”  Add to this the growth of suspension and expulsion that puts students with disciplinary infractions out of school and at greater risk of getting into deeper trouble.  Successful advocacy by civil rights groups has successfully pressured the U.S. Department of Education to insist that school districts avoid overly punitive discipline policies and institute “restorative” programs that support better behavior and conflict mediation.

But the rapid growth of incarceration has also impacted children and young people by undermining families, intensifying poverty, and tearing apart neighborhoods when parents are sent away to jails and prisons.  While the implications for children when parents are incarcerated has not been sufficiently covered in the press, sociologists have explored what the trend means for the children left behind.

In Our Kids: The American Dream In Crisis, Robert Putnam explains: “For both black children and white children, the risk of having a parent imprisoned by the time they reached 14 rose significantly between the birth cohort of 1978… and the birth cohort of 1990, and that risk was concentrated among children whose parents were less educated… This period of exploding incarceration is precisely the period in which single-parent families became more and more common in the less educated, lower-income stratum of the population.  Correlation does not prove causation, of course, but mass incarceration has certainly removed a very large number of young fathers from poor neighborhoods, and the effects of their absence, on white and nonwhite kids alike, are known to be traumatic, leaving long-lasting scars… Paternal incarceration (independent of other facts about a child’s background, like the parents’ education and income and race) is a strong predictor of bad educational outcomes, like getting poor grades and dropping out of school… Having a dad in prison is… one of the most common themes in the lives of poor kids.” (Our Kids, pp. 76-77)

Patrick Sharkey examines the effect of the explosive growth of incarceration: “Accompanying the nationwide ‘War on Drugs’ and the proliferation of ‘tough on crime’ political rhetoric was the emergence of sentencing commissions, the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences, and the scaling back or elimination of parole across the states… These changes have led to the emergence of the prison as a central institution in the black community…  When young men go to prison they are not only separated from their families; they are separated from the opportunity to obtain education, experience, or skills that are useful in the labor force. When they return, the obstacles they face as they attempt to reenter society are daunting. Returning prisoners often face overwhelming child support obligations that accumulate during their time in prison…. Without the realistic prospect of stable employment, it is extremely unlikely that these men can support a family…. The result is a segment of the community that is detached from the legal labor market and detached from the family unit.” (Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality, pp. 75-76)

Sharkey examines the challenges mass incarceration poses for the establishment and maintenance of families that can support children: “What does it mean for a community when almost one out of every ten of its children has a father who is incarcerated? We are only beginning to know the answer to this question but a set of recent studies has already demonstrated a strong association between parental incarceration and children’s mental health, aggressiveness, and subsequent involvement with the criminal justice system.” (Stuck in Place, pp. 77-78)

Sharkey’s focus is the convergence of a mass of structural injustices in the poorest neighborhoods of our nation’ cities: “These communities are the product of the economic transformation that has taken place in urban centers over the past several decades, in which the jobs that supported a growing black working class disappeared over time.  They are the result of the erratic federal commitment to America’s cities, reflected in major cuts to housing, to economic development, and to the welfare state at the same time that joblessness in urban enters was growing and the need for support becoming more acute.  Finally, these communities are the product of the punitive response to the widespread economic dislocation, in which increasingly harsh punishment has led to levels of imprisonment that are unmatched in the world and that are targeted toward the by-products of deindustrialization: young, less educated, minority men.  Perhaps more than any other policy, demographic trend, or economic change in the post civil rights era, the explosion in incarceration rates from the 1970s onward has the potential to create lasting damage to black communities that may extend on to the next generation.” (Stuck in Place, pp. 78-79)

Here is Robert Putnam’s summation of our society’s current challenge: “Any serious effort to deal with the family and community facets of the opportunity gap should include efforts to reduce incarceration for nonviolent crime and enhance rehabilitation.  Incarceration, especially paternal incarceration, was part of the story of virtually every poor kid we met in this study.” (Our Kids, p. 247)

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4 thoughts on “Priorities Gone Wrong: Prison Spending Skyrockets, Leaves School Spending Behind

  1. I wonder if anyone has traced the lobbying efforts of the for-profit prison management “industry”, funded as reported by Jane Mayer in Dark Money, to pass mandatory sentencing legislation in many states… apparently with the help of the Koch brothers network of neoconservative foundations and ALEC. It is unlikely that the increase in passage of mandatory sentencing laws and the resulting higher profits for the private management firms is coincidental.

  2. Here’s a historical lesson that needs to be more known!
    Dan Kerr in his book Derelict Paradise, connects the dots of the prison-govt-industrial complex and the Voinovichs. Mayor/Governor/Senator Voinovich participated in and led the ‘War on Drugs’. The mass incarceration that followed led to an explosion of prisons. Those prisons were built by Paul Voinovich, his brother’s construction company.
    That is why homeless people in Cleveland described the shelters-daylaborwork-prisons as seamless. They were all prisons of a sort! And connected by Cleveland’s power elite, with the Minuteman corporate owner sitting on the board of the Salvation Army, while employing homeless people. This was in the 1990s. (Cleveland leaders rave about the low cost of labor in Cleveland.)
    That’s why we have an adult playground in downtown Cleveland, subsidized with billions of dollars of govt subsidies and tax-giveaways. And we have the nightmare of RNC. Cleveland has been working at making itself a ‘tourist town’ for over a 100 years. In the Great Depression, making Cleveland a tourist town was our leaders’ idea of a way out. Not much different today, but built on our taxes. Not a penny of property tax (on the building itself) paid by the Key Bank Complex in 20 years. Where is our money … given away to the wealthy. Where are our people? in jails, incarcerated in prisons built by Paul Voinovich.
    And now the latest study on Downtown Cleveland paid to CSU to conduct for the Downtown Alliance indicates that the ‘playground’ and subsidized apartments (all tax free for 15 years) has created new problems. Less office space, less corporate businesses. …And the recommendation, to address the new problems from success is the need to invest MORE MONEY DOWNTOWN.
    There is a profane word for this kind of boldness and audacity. But I won’t use it.
    Who are these people?
    Unless we’re in the streets, they are deaf?
    Then again .. it was so from the beginning.
    And Dan Kerr, Cleveland Hts. graduate, ably tells the story in detail from 1877 on.
    Take a look

    • Oh, I forgot this additional point: the expansion of prisons in rural Ohio by the Gov/Senator Voinovich was marketed as a jobs program. So, while jobs were disappearing in urban areas and day-labor was taking off, in rural areas, prison jobs were the answer.
      This is the ugliness of government.
      In such cases, government, which is supposed to focus on the common good and individual good, demonstrates the worst of what we would hope for.
      Perhaps, it is because it is a pandering to the worst sides of ourselves.
      It also puts us to our greatest challenge – whether we are willing to align ourselves with those who receive the harsh consequences.
      That is why ‘jail’ was Gandhi’s favorite place. It clarifies one’s choices and mind. Solidarity in spirit, but most of all in body.

  3. Pingback: Priorities Gone Wrong: Prison Spending Skyrockets, Leaves School Spending Behind – Ministry of Public Witness

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