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State Budgets Are Funding Prisons at the Expense of Higher Education, Says Justice Policy Institute Report


March-April 1997

More money is being spent in the United States building prisons than building universities, according to a report released on February 23 by the Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC (Tara-Jen Ambrosio and Vincent Schiraldi, "From Classrooms to Cell Blocks: A National Perspective," Justice Policy Institute, February 1997; Roberto Suro, "More Is Spent On New Prisons Than Colleges," Washington Post, February 24, 1997, p. A12).

The study found that from 1987 to 1995, state government expenditures on prisons increased by 30% while spending on higher education decreased by 18%. Over a 2-year period from 1994 through 1995, state spending on prison construction increased by $926 million while funds for higher education fell by $954 million. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, the estimated expenditure on corrections funded by the sale of bonds will surpass higher education bond expenditures for the first time ever. "These findings prove that, in the funding battle between prisons and universities, prisons are consistently coming out on top," said Vincent Schiraldi, director of JPI and coauthor of the study.

Between 1980 and 1996, the daily prison and jail population in the U.S. more than tripled from 500,000 to over 1.6 million. Eighty-four percent of the increase was accounted for by nonviolent offenders. At the end of 1994, the number of people in prison or jail, or on probation or parole surpassed 5 million (2.7% of the adult population). The average cost of building a new prison cell is $54,000, and can exceed $100,000 with interest on the debt incurred to finance it. The average cost of operating a prison bed is from $22,000 to $25,000 per year. In addition, there are other public costs attributable to incarceration such as child support of inmates' children, tax revenues lost because inmates are no longer in the economy, and public health costs from treating inmates at greater risk of exposure to infection in prison.

According to JPI, increased spending on corrections reduces access to, and the quality of, higher education. College tuition rose in the 1990s due to the reduction in state appropriations for higher education More students rely on student loans and are faced with higher levels of personal debt upon graduation. Increased tuition and reduced grants have led to a downturn in the access to higher education. From 1984 to 1992, the number of faculty at public institutions of higher education increased by 28.5% nationally, while the number of correctional officers increased by 129%.

For the first time in California's history, the 1996-1997 state budget appropriates more money for corrections (9.4%) than for higher education (8.7%). In 1980, the state spent 2.3% of its General Fund on corrections and 9.2% on higher education. Since 1984, California constructed 21 new prisons and only one state university. The California Department of Corrections added 25,864 employees, while there was a reduction of 8,082 higher education employees. "As states continue to lay off teachers to pay for corrections officers, it is becoming more apparent that their citizens are poorly educated and unemployable -- precisely the kind of person who fill our prisons," the study says.

Since 1994 Florida has spent more on prisoners than students -- also for the first time in its history. Over the past two decades, Florida went from spending 11-13% of its general revenue on the state university system to less than 8%, while corrections spening quintupled to $1.3 billion, 9.5% of the general revenue. Currently, Florida's average state university faculty salaries rank 42nd in the U.S. "Wise public policy ... will combine effective, cost-efficient reforms in criminal justice with investments in the state's future. Only if criminal justice expenditures are made efficiently, will resources be available for critical investments in prevention, intervention and education," said a 1994 report by the Florida Council of 100.

Most prison officials and members of the public prefer a more balanced approach to crime solutions, according to the study. Maryland's public safety chief, Bishop L. Robinson, recently said that 32% of the prisoners in Maryland could be immediately paroled or put into alternative programs. In a survey of wardens, 85% said that elected officials are not offering effective solutions to the crime problem, and 92% said that greater use should be made of alternatives to incarceration. According to a study commissioned by the American Correctional Association (ACA), 75% of Americans polled believe that a balanced approach of prevention, punishment and treatment is better than imprisonment alone at reducing crime. "These results show that the public's mood may not be as punitive as some politicians would have us believe," said ACA president Bobbie L. Huskey. In a Los Angeles Times poll, 72% of California residents polled opposed taking funds from universities to pay for "three strikes." In fact, the last two correctional bond initiatives on the statewide ballot went down to a double-digit defeats.

The study concludes that states need to seek alternative criminal justice policies. Specifically, JPI recommended that states: (1) "Adopt a moratorium on new prison construction" and "cut the nonviolent prisoner population in half over the next five years." (2) "Reallocate the prison construction funding from the 1994 Crime Act as seed funding for community corrections." (3) "Initiate widespread enactment of Community Corrections Acts." (4) "Require a fiscal impact statement before implementing major crime policies." (5) "Invest in the future of children, families and communities."

For a copy of the report, contact the Justice Policy Institute, 2208 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20020, Tel: (202) 678-9282, Fax: (202) 678-9321.