Prisons or Higher Education, Which Do We Fund?

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)

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.

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.

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.

sharon kyleFor 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 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


  1. richmck says

    Prison overcrowding and very high prison costs have little to do with crime and everything to do with politics. Over a third of the county jail population was shifted to prison between 1985 and 1995 because of jail overcrowding. The State could (and should) have put the low level inmates in contract facilities like other states and the Federal prison system. That didn’t happen because the correctional unions oppose use of contract facilities. That decision added over $1 billion to annual prison operating costs. The U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce prison capacity by 32,000 beds will reduce annual prison costs by about $1 billion. Actually the state could reduce annual prison costs by an additional billion by shifting an additional 48,000 Level I & II inmates to county operated contract facilities. That shift would enable the state to single cell all the 80,000 level II & IV inmates.

  2. in_awe says

    Why does CA spend 2-1/2 times more than what TX does to house a prisoner for a year? I can tell you it is NOT because of special services for prisoners. In fact, the services for prisoners are being cut back due to budget cuts. I have a young relative incarcerated in a CA prison and in the last few years the prison library has been closed, access to college classes has been dropped because there is no money to pay test proctors, medical and dental care is mostly non-existent, etc. Meanwhile we see the pay and benefits of corrections officers continue to skyrocket.

    On the education side, take a look at the salaries paid to UC administrators and faculty members. I don’t have the specifics at hand, but the numbers of UC employees receiving salaries (excluding benefits) in excess of $250,000 a year is jaw dropping. Ditto for higher levels of compensation. Is EVERY professor at a UC campus a superstar?

    Recent reports show that statewide 70% of students enrolled in a degree program at a community college have not completed the requirements for an associates degree – after six years of enrollment. What is the point of subsidizing these non-student students?

    I know it is fashionable to demand higher taxes to pay for the best of everything – but isn’t it time to reassess how money is actually being spent and whether we can afford everything?

  3. DarrelB says

    The reason incarceration rates are up since the 1970’s is that there was an outcry from the California public due to high crime rates. More criminals have been locked up and the crime rate has fallen dramatically. Locking up habitual criminals has worked.

    As far as spending on prisons rather than education, I fail to see the link. Just because a criminal is not incarcerated doesn’t mean they are suddenly going to want to go to college. I don’t see the link between higher education spending and prisons.

  4. says

    They do not report “people in our prisons received life sentences for comparatively minor offenses” because it does not happen. The first priority of a government to its people is their public safety, not an education.

    The graph shows an investment in prisons that has put more people in prison, but it does not graph the reduction in murders, assaults, robberies, and rapes.

    The reason for the Hobson’s choice between these two is they are the largest items on the budget in any state. For every suppose failure in the criminal justice system, you can point out ten times that many in drop out rates in high schools and college.

    The difference is, people’s lives are ruined by assaults, robberies, and rapes. You can make the case that people should be responsible for their education rather than drop out. It is an individual decision, just like that of those who dehumanize others as they abuse them by committing assaults, robberies, rapes, and murders.

    It is always a judgement call between education and prisons, but the first duty of government is to protect its citizens by providing public safety, which includes depriving some citizens the opportunity to create new victims.

    • says

      Your argument would be sound if it were not for the overwhelming evidence that points to the war on drugs as the reason for most of the growth in our prison population. Over 70% of those serving time are there for non-violent drug offenses. In other words, they are not there because they have assaulted, robbed, raped or murdered!!!. They are there for “possession”. A majority of these are first time offenders. In many cases, if they had committed these same “crimes” 50 years ago, they would not be serving time at all. We’ve changed laws and imposed mandatory sentences for social ills that need to be addressed in other ways.

  5. Milan Moravec says

    More eyes need to look more closely at the way $ are being wasted at the University of California. Looking for an example? University of California Berkeley Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau and Provost George W Breslauer must go: longer such reforms delayed, the more drastic the changes will be.
    (The author who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way senior management work.)

    Cal. Chancellor pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; Cal. tuition to Return on Investment (ROI) drops below top 10; NCAA places Cal. men’s basketball program on probation; Cal. Chancellor recruits out of state $50,000 tuition students that displace qualified Californians.

    Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s ($500,000 salary) eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.

    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies and then crafting a plan to fix them. Able oversight by the UC Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on inefficiencies and on what steps he was taking to solve them during his 8 year reign. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.

    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies. Faculty and staff raised issues with Birgeneau and Provost George W Breslauer ($400,000 salary), but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($3,000,000) consultants (fiscal waste) to tell him and the Provost what they should have known as leaders or been able to find out from the bright, engaged Cal. people. (Prominent east coast University accomplishing same without consultants)

    Cal. has been badly damaged. Good people are loosing their jobs. Cal’s leadership is either incompetent or culpable. Merely cutting out inefficiencies does not have the effect desired. But you never want a crisis to go to waste.

    Increasing Cal’s budget is not enough. Take aim at the real source of Cal’s leadership crisis; honorably retire Chancellor Birgeneau and Provost Breslauer.

    Our California fiscal crisis demands action.

  6. says

    The system is inherently arbitrary and unfair. I think the average Californian believes the state is soft on crime and feels outraged because the media constantly reports on notorious violent criminals being released after serving short terms. What isn’t reported is that many of the people in our prisons received life sentences for comparatively minor offenses or conviction on shaky evidence after inadequate representation by court-appointed attorneys. (The Public Defenders Office is usually very good, but they only have enough staffing to take fewer than 50% of the cases. The appointed “panel” attorneys are paid a total of about $300 no matter how long the case takes. They tend to show up with no preparation, no investigation, simply go through the formality of standing next to a prisoner as that person is inevitably found guilty.)


  1. […] Incarceration is not the solution. As a nation we spend millions of dollars on prisons and precious little on education. Over the past 23 years, California constructed roughly one new prison per year, at a cost of $100 million each, while it built only one new public college during the same period. Nationwide, spending on prisons has risen six times faster than spending on higher education. […]

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