Over the last thirty-five years, state and local government spending on prisons and jails has increased more than three times faster than spending in education for pre-kindergarten through grade twelve, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education (ED). At the postsecondary education level, spending on corrections grew nearly twenty times faster over a shorter time frame (School Years (SYs) 1989–90 to 2012–13).
The report partly attributes the increase in corrections spending to the “enactment of additional, often lengthy mandatory minimum sentence laws.” As a result, the number of people incarcerated in state and local correctional facilities more than quadrupled, rising from about 490,000 in 1980 to more than 2 million in 2014—even as crime rates declined by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014.
Linkages Exist Between Poor Educational Outcomes and Incarceration
Of the people who are incarcerated, a large percentage are high school dropouts. According to a 2013 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, 56 percent of federal inmates, 67 percent of inmates in state prisons, and 69 percent of inmates in local jails did not complete high school. Additionally, the report finds that the number of incarcerated individuals without a high school diploma is increasing over time.
“If the nation made a comparable investment in effort and dollars in schools as it does in jails and prisons, the return would be decreased levels of criminal activity and incarceration as well as significant and life-changing impacts on the individual,” reads Saving Futures, Saving Dollars.
The return would also be significant from a financial standpoint. In fact, the nation could save as much as $18.5 billion in annual crime costs if the high school male graduation rate increased by only 5 percentage points.
Among Individual States, Dramatic Differences in Spending on Education and Corrections
Upon examining individual states, the ED report finds spending differences that exceed 500 percentage points in the five states shown in the table 1 below. In total, twelve states posted differences of 300 or more percentage points. The states with the smallest spending differences were Massachusetts (63 percentage points), Connecticut (87 percentage points), and New York (88 percentage points).
When reporting the data on a per-capita basis to adjust for increases in the population, the report finds smaller percentage increases in spending, but gaps between education spending and corrections spending that remain very large. As shown in the image below, four states (South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, and Wyoming) continue to post differences that were greater than 300 percentage points. Notably, only two states (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) saw spending on pre-K–12 grow at a faster pace than spending on corrections.
“All too often, children growing up in poor communities not only do poorly in school, but also are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated during their teenage and young adult years,” the report notes. “Even for offenses for which there are few differences by race or ethnicity in the likelihood of committing a crime, individuals of color—black youth in particular—are more likely than white individuals to be arrested and receive longer sentences for the same offenses.”
Citing a “large body of research,” the report notes that incarceration’s effectiveness in reducing future crime is “particularly weak,” with a 10 percent increase in incarceration accountable for only a 2 percent reduction in crime. Investments in education, however, can “reduce criminal activity by altering student behavior and improving labor market outcomes,” the report notes.
The Alliance report backs up this finding. In addition to saving $18.5 billion in annual crime costs, Saving Futures, Saving Dollars finds that increasing the male high school graduation rate by 5 percentage points would decrease overall annual incidences of assault by nearly 60,000; larceny by more than 37,000; motor vehicle theft by more than 31,000; and burglaries by more than 17,000. It would also prevent nearly 1,300 murders, more than 3,800 occurrences of rape, and more than 1,500 robberies.
A life of crime might not pay, but as these studies show, investments in education do.