State Spending More on Corrections Than on Education

By:  Les Leopold

State spending on corrections is growing six times faster than states pending on higher education, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the NAACP. Little wonder that state dollars on prisons will soon outpace state spending on higher education in every state of the union.

Why is this happening?

1. Prohibition
Our insanity starts with the fact that you can go to prison for dealing drugs, but you are a well-respected member of society if you own a liquor store. It’s as if we have learned nothing from our illfated attempts to jam temperance down the throats of fellow-citizens 100 years ago. Our pathetic war on drugs helped pump up the prison population in America from 200,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2011. Approximately 50 percent of people in federal prisons and 20 percent of people in state prisons are there for drug-related crimes. But the number is much higher if you include those incarcerated because of other crimes (like theft) related to obtaining drugs.

2. Law-and-Order Conservatives
Politicians are more easily elected if they talk tough about crime, including, but not limited to, putting people away for smoking a joint. Mandatory sentencing laws, including three-strikes-andyou’re- in, guarantee an ever-increasing prison population. And this is a disproportionately large black and Hispanic population, since being tough on crime is all too often code for protecting white folks from dangerous people of color.

3. Racism
We’re number one when it comes to imprisoning minorities. We have the highest percentage of minorities imprisoned in the world. Seventy-five percent of young black men in Washington, DC will spend some time in prison. “In major cities across the country, 80% of young African Americans now have criminal records.”

4. The Prison-Industrial Complex
The pressure for more prisons comes from an unholy alliance of law-and order conservatives, private corporations
that construct, supply and run prisons, and the prison guard unions that hope to protect and expand their membership. They know exactly what they are doing when they support tougher sentencing, more enforcement and more state funding for prisons.

5. They Can Dump Tuition Costs on Students and Their Families
The sad fact of life is that politicians can shift more and more of the costs of higher education onto students with tuition increases and increased fees, while they cannot push the financial costs of prisons onto prisoners. Instead, state general funds increasingly go to prisons while general funds for higher education get slashed.

6. The Wall Street Crash
The horrific trends of the past three decades are being amplified by the Wall Street-created crash that crushed state government budgets. After the banks looted our economy into the ground, over 8 million jobs were destroyed in a matter of months.

What Can We Do About It?

The solutions are staring us in the face:

1. End drug prohibition and free all prisoners held on drug related crimes. (This means abolishing the entire war on drugs apparatus, from the feds on down.)

2. End mandatory sentencing.

3. Provide amnesty for all undocumented immigrants and develop a sane and safe immigration policy.

4. Place a financial speculation tax on Wall Street to fund free higher education at all accredited two- and four-year public institutions.

5. Put all of our people to work through a green jobs program paid for by increased taxes on the top 1 percent.

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York