Spending More on Prisons than Education

I came across an article today that list 10 states that spend more on prisons than education. Although I was not surprised that Georgia was on the list, as well as the usual suspects such as California and New York. I was surprised by a few of the states that were included, and a few who were absent from the list. What surprised me the most was that Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina were not listed. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these states are spending “enough” on education to properly educate all of their citizens. But it does mean that, despite how it has been accomplished, the states surrounding Georgia have somehow achieved a balance between corrections and education spending and continue to spend more on educating their citizens than locking them up. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not point out that this balance could be received by drastically under funding the prison system. But I am not sure how a state would achieve a more bare bones operation than the one Georgia has.

As I said, finding Georgia on this list was no surprise. We have the fourth largest prison system in the nation and in 2009 we incarcerated more of our citizens per capita than anyone else in the nation – and by extension – the world. Meanwhile, our public K-12 schools are always rated near the bottom nationally, yet we continue to cut education spending. In fact, we cut education spending when the economy was booming and the state had a revenue surplus. To me, there is a direct correlation to being #47 or #48 in education and #1 or #4 in incarceration rates.

Now to be fair, it does cost a lot more to house, feed, and cloth a person than to provide instruction and books. And we are not factoring in how much revenue the state receives or saves from products the inmates make and how much they make from phone calls, commissary, and products family members buy and send to their loved ones in prison. But does the divide have to be so large? Georgia currently spends $18,000 per inmate per year (and that is actually too little) verses $3,800 per K-12 student. I can not help but wonder what would happen if we increased education spending per child to half of what we spend per inmate – even a third would be a drastic increase. Or what if instead of spending less on  schools in high risks areas, we double or triple spending and education services in those areas? After all,  research shows that the more education a person receives the less likely they are to go to prison. What would happen if Georgia went from one of the least educated states in the nation to the best educated? Would we still spend over a billion dollars a year on maintaining one of the largest prison systems in the world?

And why is it that other south eastern states are not on the list of states that spend more on prisons than education? Are all of their prisons skimping on basic needs such as food, clothing, and adequate housing in order to spend less than we do? Are Georgia’s crime rates so much higher than neighboring states and thus justified in such a large difference in incarceration rates? Or maybe our neighbors are much richer and are spending a lot more on education than Georgia.

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding – NO. Some of the states spend less per inmate than we do and some spend more. Our crime rates are equal to or less than all of our neighboring states. And there is not a drastic difference between what we spend per capita on K-12 education and what our neighbors spend.

So what is the difference? And how do we fix it?

Our governor and general assemble recognize that we are spending too much to incarcerate too many of our citizens and have taken steps to reduce both. Last year they established drug courts to divert non-violent offenders to community rehabilitation centers instead of prison. They also made some changes to property offense laws. This year they are looking at mandatory sentencing and juvenile justice reforms. All of the changes they have made and want to make in the future are based on evidence based research on crime and rehabilitation.  I believe that if the state continues on this trajectory of changing laws and regulations based on sound evidential proof  Georgia will not only find itself removed from this top ten list but we will see drastic cuts in incarceration rates and cost.

Now, how do we get them to approach K-12 and college education with the same model?