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CHANGING PRIORITIES: State Prison Reform Would Make More Funding Available for Education, Says New Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Report

The states that made the most significant cuts to general funding for K–12 since the recession are among the ten states with the highest incarceration rates.

A report released October 28 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) suggests that state criminal justice reform would free up millions of general fund dollars that states could use to improve their preschool, K–12, and higher education systems, especially for low-income areas.

“Even as states spend more on corrections, they are underinvesting in educating children and young adults, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods,” the report notes. “This is not sound policy. State economies would be much stronger over time if states invested more in education and other areas that can boost long-term economic growth and less in maintaining extremely high prison populations.”

Reordering state criminal justice systems and investing in education would make it possible to combat several disadvantages that students face, according to the report, specifically for students in low-income areas who tend to face the most drawbacks from budget cuts. Namely, the increase in available funding could help expand access to high-quality preschool; reduce class sizes in high-poverty schools; revise state funding formulas that counteract inequities created by schools receiving most of their local funds from property tax (which heavily favors wealthier districts); and increase college enrollment and graduation rates—as more state funding would be available, keeping the cost of tuition for students and their families low.

Prison Graph 02Spending on state corrections has grown at a much faster pace than that of education spending. According to the report, Changing Priorities: State Criminal Justice Reforms and Investments in Education, overall state spending on education grew by 69 percent from 1986 to 2013, compared to the massive increase of 141 percent that states spent on corrections in that same time span. In addition, the report notes that at least thirty states provided less general funding for schools since the economic recession in 2008. The states that made the most significant cuts to general funding for K–12 since the recession—Alabama, Arizona, and Oklahoma—are among the ten states with the highest incarceration rates, the report notes.

The number of inmates in the United States has increased greatly in the past few decades. In 1978, there were about 270,000 people behind bars in the U.S. In 2013, that number was 1.3 million.

The report’s authors, Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research with the state fiscal policy division of CBPP, and Michael Mitchell, policy analyst with CBPP’s state fiscal policy division, assert that lawmakers could decrease these costly trends through several measures without harming public safety. Among their recommendations are the decriminalizing or reclassifying of certain low-level felonies, such as drug possession, that have contributed significantly to recent prison inflation, and not resorting to prison for those who violate parole or probation.

A few states made strides in streamlining their criminal justice system, feeding the dollars saved back into investments such as education. California’s Proposition 47, also known as the Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act, reclassifies drug and theft crimes to misdemeanors in hopes of reducing the costly state prison population and reinvesting those funds elsewhere. The proposal, which passed on November 4, would reserve 25 percent of those savings to support at-risk youth in schools. The proposition is estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually that would have otherwise served the second largest prison population in the United States.

Changing Priorities: State Criminal Justice Reforms and Investments in Education is available at

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