We Spend More on Prisons than on Education?

Barry Lenson

"Winners and Losers: Corrections and Higher Education in California,” an article you can read on the California Common Sense website, reports that since 1980, California’s spending on higher education has dropped 13%, while spending on the state’s prisons has increased 436%.

It’s not unusual. In fact, our national policy seems to be that locking up people is better than educating them so they can learn skills, get jobs – and hopefully, not commit crimes. It’s a choice that comes down to whether we think that people are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I’ll leave it to you to pursue that question, since it’s miles too big to tackle on this blog.

According to one authoritative source, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, it costs California $47,000 a year to incarcerate a prisoner for one year. For just a little more money than that, California could send a student to Princeton, Harvard, or Brown.

Why are we making this choice? One reason is that politicians don’t want to be accused of being “soft on crime.” That could explain why the big-party presidential candidates haven’t said a word about prison reform during their campaigns. I haven’t heard other candidates mention it either.

Prisons aren’t the only place where our government could find money to educate people. We could order fewer fighter planes or tanks every year. We could spend a little less on NASA. We could refuse to start any new wars for the next five years or so. Any of those steps could provide money to educate college students and make America more competitive in the years ahead.

Cut NASA? Cut military spending? Lots of people would dismiss those suggestions as radical. Perhaps they would be right. But here’s another radical idea. How about educating people and then seeing whether we still need to lock them up?

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