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Crazy Country: 6 Reasons America Spends More on Prisons Than On Higher Education

Dollars doing to prisons will soon outpace dollars going to higher education in every state of the union.

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In 2011, Wisconsin state spending quietly hit a milestone: For the first time, the state budgeted more taxpayer dollars for prisons and correctional facilities than for the University of Wisconsin System. For 2011-'13, Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers allotted just under $2.1 billion to the state's public universities and $2.25 billion to the Department of Corrections. It's a gap that is unlikely to close any time soon. -- Alison Bauter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 16, 2012

Are we insane? How can we afford to spend more on prisons than on higher education in our increasingly competitive knowledge-based world? Is this just an isolated case where a few Ryan Republicans hijacked the Wisconsin state budget, or are we looking at a national trend?

To check out the fluke theory, let’s look at California, which along with Wisconsin has (or had) a higher education system that was the envy of the world. Our answer comes from data requested by the Bay Citizen from the Department of Finance and it ain’t pretty. “The budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation increased from about 3 percent of the state's general fund in 1980 to 11.2 percent for this fiscal year… Meanwhile, funding for [higher education] dropped from 10 percent of the state's general fund 30 years ago to about 6.6 percent this fiscal year. Or as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in 2010, "Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future. ... What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?" 

Indeed, what does it say about our country? Is this a national trend?

State spending on corrections is growing six times faster than state spending 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 ill-fated 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.

Why do people steal in order to buy drugs? For starters, most are poor and will stay that way because as a society we have failed to create an inclusive full-employment economy. Instead we genuflect to Social Darwinism, hoping that the jobs for all will miraculously appear from the private sector, and if they don’t, then it must be your fault if you don’t have a job. Second, drug prices are vastly inflated due to price subsidies disguised as drug enforcement. Every dollar spent on the vast apparatus that attempts to enforce prohibition drives up the price of drugs and the amount of crime related to drug use.

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-and-you’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. Go on a rant about immigrants and the prisons rolls grow even faster.

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