US spending on prisons and jails grew three times as fast as spending on education in the last 3 decades

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FLickr / KT King

A new federal report reveals that state and local governments have increased spending on prisons and jails at three times the rate they’ve increased spending on grade-school education in the last three decades.

The analysis used data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, US Census Bureau, and other sources to compare the changes in spending between 1979-1980 and 2012-2013.

Overall, spending on public elementary and secondary school education increased by 107%, while public spending on corrections increased by 324%.

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US Department of Education

Among individual states, spending increases on corrections varied considerably. Massachusetts ramped up spending by 149%, and in Texas, spending rose by 850%.

For education, the numbers were also wide-ranging – from an 18% education spending increase in Michigan, to a 326% increase in Nevada.

The data also compared hikes in spending on corrections to increases in spending on public higher education. Between 1989-1990 and 2012-2013, corrections spending increased by 89%, while higher education spending remained almost completely flat.

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US Department of Education

The numbers paint a particularly grim picture of American spending priorities, according to US Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” King said in a press release. “For far too long, systems in this country have continued to perpetuate inequity. We must choose to make more investments in our children’s future. We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Experts have long been concerned about the connection between poor commitment to education and increases in incarceration. According to the report, the US has 5% of the world’s overall population but 20% of the world’s prison population. Two-thirds of inmates in state prisons have not completed high school.

The disparity disproportionately affects people of color; black men between the ages of 20 and 24 are more likely to be incarcerated than employed, according to data cited in the study.

The report notes that incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the last few decades despite decreases in actual crime rates, partially because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. But researchers question whether incarceration is actually an effective method for reducing crime.

The report suggests redirecting some of the money for incarceration toward education instead – in part by raising teacher salaries and expanding access to preschool, higher education, and correctional education.