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

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.

It seems as if these political tough guys (who, of course, claim to detest big government) are ever eager to have a bigger and bigger criminal justice system intrude into our lives. The latest anti-abortion bills, if passed, could further increase the prison population by putting you away for providing abortions or having them (with no exceptions even for rape, “forcible,” “legitimate,” or otherwise).

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.” (See Alexander, Michelle (2010), The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York, The New Press. p. 7. as cited in Wikipedia.)

Prison is our full-employment policy for young blacks and Hispanics. Rather than develop comprehensive programs that provide real training and decent paying jobs, we put them away. It forms a lethal vortex of violence especially along the border – the war on drugs and strict border enforcement raises the price of drugs which in turn makes it more profitable to run them, which in turn leads to more violence among drug dealers, both here and Mexico, as they fight to control this lucrative trade (with weapons supplied by our lax gun laws). This leads to the outcry for more enforcement of failed immigration policies, which in turn puts more people in jail either for minor crimes or to await deportation.

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. While I’m a true-blue union guy who believes that all workers, including prison guards, should have decent wages, benefits and working conditions, I take issue with any union that organizes new members solely by relying on strategies that lock up more and more of our people.

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. As you can see from the chart below, as state appropriations for higher education tumble, you pay more in tuition.


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. (Please, resist financial Alzheimer’s and remember that it was Wall Street and Wall Street alone that took down the economy: not big government, not poor home buyers, not regulations, and not immigrants.)

The dramatic rise in unemployed increased the amount state governments had to spend on unemployment insurance and related costs. And, the depression levels of unemployment and business cutbacks caused state government tax revenues to plummet. The net result was increased pressure to slash government spending, and one of the easiest targets was higher education, since the costs could be shifted to students and their families rather than taxpayers in general. Yet more collateral damage from greed-run-wild on Wall Street.

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.

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

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


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