Schools or Prisons?

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A note to my fellow students, who are suffering yet another round of budget cuts in higher education. In addition to lobbying for better support of the university system, you can pressure your legislators for prison reform. Think those are two separate things? Guess again.

In Louisiana, where I’m attending school, state funding for colleges has dropped by more than 80% in only five years, and is now at its lowest point in half a century. Most of the burden is being pushed onto the students in the form of higher tuition, though the universities are forced to make cuts in services as well.

While some of this can be blamed on an economy battered by Bush-era tax cuts and wars, there is an alarming synergy between the funding of higher educations and prisons. This has been analyzed intensively in my home state of California.

The result is best summarized in a single graph.

As you can see, the percentage of the budget that is allocated to prisons has been rising. Because state revenues and spending have been relatively stagnant, the money has to come from somewhere, and so other programs see their funding cut in order to feed the “prison-industrial complex”.

For-profit prisons are not only a moral blight on the nation, they have quickly degenerated into scams in which the public pays for services not provided. Not only do taxpayers foot the bill for a guaranteed occupancy rate, states then have the perverse incentive to send more people to prison, thus reducing their sunk costs, rather than creating policies that work to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce prison population. This exacerbates the country’s already bizarre tendency to imprison more of its population than any other country in the world and perpetuates the racial inequities that have long been a part of the “justice” system.

Amidst all this grim news, there is at least one glimmer of light in recent trends. As more and more people recognize the extent of the failure of the “war on drugs”, and more states follow the lead of Washington and Colorado, prison populations should decrease, given that around one of every eight state and federal prisoners is there on marijuana charges. Of course, this won’t help if the corruption and guaranteed contracts in the privatized prison system isn’t eliminated. And despite the Obama administration’s statement that they have “better things to do” than go after people smoking weed, the arrest rates have not yet begun to change.

Still, armed with the knowledge that our money could be better spent educating people rather than tossing them in jail, perhaps we can reverse the recent trends and return some of the state spending to art, science, and higher learning and building up society rather than tearing it down.

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