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It's been widely reported that states are dedicating increasingly larger portions of their budgets to prisons and smaller portions to higher education. With funding for higher education and prisons or corrections generally occupying the portion of the state's budget that is neither mandated by federal requirements nor driven by population, the two are in direct competition. As a result, growth in the prison budget translates into shrinkage of the higher education budget.

(source: State of California)

(source: State of California)

In a LA Progressive article in March 2010 entitled, "First Solve the Prison Crisis Then Fix California's Budget", Dick Price reported, “In a recent 23-year period, California erected 23 prisons—one a year, each costing roughly $100 million dollars annually to operate, with both Democratic and Republican governors occupying the statehouse—at the same time that it added just one campus to its university system, UC Merced.”

The chart above shows the amounts budgeted for higher education and corrections in California's budget. In the 2000-2001 budget year, the budget for higher education was almost twice that of the prison. Over a nine-year period, the prison budget grew to almost equal that budgeted for higher education.

According to the Pew Center on the States, in the past twenty years, spending on prisons has grown six times faster than spending on higher education, across the nation.

In California, for example, thirty years ago the prison budget represented just 2% of the state's overall budget. Today, 10% of California's budget is allocated to cover prison related costs.

In a report entitled, "Misplaced Priorities", the NAACP examines the increase in prison spending in America and addresses the impact this increase has had on our state budgets and our nation’s children.

Focusing on six American cities, the report concludes that there has been a "steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system".

Data gathered from the cities of Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and Jackson, Mississippi, was used to support the findings made by the NAACP in this recently published report. According to the report, in Los Angeles --

More than 50 percent of the people who were in prison, and are now on parole and live in zip codes that are home to only 18 percent of the city’s adults. This means that more than a billion taxpayer dollars are spent every year to incarcerate people from Los Angeles neighborhoods where less than 20 percent of Los Angeles residents live.

Through the study, the NAACP sheds light on the issue but also offers a set of recommendations to help policymakers across the country reduce prison populations and shift the savings to education budgets.

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In an interview on PBS Newshour, Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a tax advocacy organization, sat down with Judy Woodruff to discuss ways in which conservatives, moderates, and progressives can come together to rethink our prison policies.

Jealous asserts that our country represents 5% of the world's population yet 25% of the world's incarcerated population. He says the NAACP has been working along with Tea Party activists to jointly push "smart on crime" bills at the state level. He maintains that budget pressures are forcing everyone to look at this issue.

And he is probably right. In the discussion, Norquist admits that conservatives, who typically are concerned with the bottom line, are taking a serious look at this issue for the first. Norquist and Jealous agree that tough on crime does not mean that prison is the only solution. They admit that spending more has not always resulted in better corrections systems nor has it resulted in us winning the war on drugs.

In fact, according to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), most of the increase in spending in criminal justice programs is due to increases in salary costs, as well as court-ordered mandates to improve parts of the prison system, such as medical care.

Incarceration timeline

The chart on the left shows that the dramatic increase in the number of incarcerated Americans began around 1980.

While some of the increase is due to population growth, that alone wasn't substantial enough to explain this surge. Either large segments of the American population suddenly became engaged in lawlessness or there were changes in sentencing law and prison policy that drove this outcome. Many organizations, including the NAACP, have produced research and reports that say it's the latter.

For thirty years, the overwhelming negative impact of the growing prison-industrial complex has rested primarily on the shoulders of the poor and communities of color. Now, with the country experiencing an economic crises unparalleled since the Great Depression, state budgets have been stretched to the breaking point. This means that more eyes will be looking more closely at where our dollars are being spent.

The Brown Paper Bag Test

The questions are many and unfortunately, the answers are few. And there are many who believe that prison privatization could be the cure-all. Following is a list of books and other organizations that focus on pressing issue:

Sharon Kyle, Publisher

The New Jim Crow Sentencing Policy