By Christopher Zoukis
CNN Money collected data from the Census and from the Vera Institute of Justice to learn how much how much money is spent on an elementary/secondary school student versus housing an in inmate in each state. Spoiler alert: every single state spent more money on inmates than it did on public education.
Which states were the worst “offenders?” Colorado’s disparity shows under $10,000 per student, but nearly $30,000 per inmate. New York is about $17,000 per student and a whopping $55,000+ per inmate. Not to be outdone is Virginia who doesn’t quite make the $10,000 mark per student but exceeds $20,000 per inmate.
Mic.com (a website dedicated to “news that matters”) sheds some insights on this topic too, noting the disparity is often correlated to the fact that students go home after the school day while prisoners don’t leave the grounds; and also indicates that focusing on that point is moot. The bottom line is, America is devoting way more money to its broken penal system than it is to its supposed-to-set-students-up-for-life education system.
What would happen if we flipped those numbers around and allocated more financial resources to schools? Here’s another spoiler alert: a dramatic reduction in the American prison population. How do we know this? One only has to look at one of the most active roots of the prison crisis – the school-to-prison pipeline.
In 2013, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., held a federal hearing about the school-to-prison pipeline, and opened with this chilling remark. “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is based on harsh zero-tolerance policies that allow armed police officers to question, frisk, detain and arrest students for minor infractions. Often the punishment does not fit the crime. Nail clippers and toy swords? Those are “dangerous weapons” that can get you suspended. Too much Midol in your purse? Well, obviously you are trafficking drugs. Cut in line at lunch? That disruptive behavior must be punished.
In some schools, the police don’t have to be called in – because they are stationed at the school. Children live in fear of everything from having a hem ½ an inch too short to raise their voice in the hall.
Students that are visible minorities and students with disabilities are more likely to be seen in the pipeline than Caucasians. A study by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows that African-American students were suspended or expelled more than three times more than white students. Black disabled children with disabilities were suspended at a rate of 1 in 4, while white students with disabilities enjoyed a much more favorable rate of 1 in 11.
There is an equalizer in play, however: poverty. Students from low-income households have a much higher risk of winding up in prison than affluent students. It looks like poor students catch the raw end of the deal while their wealthier counterparts are stricken with “affluenza.”
The harsh zero-tolerance policy is supposed to keep children on the straight and narrow, but all it does is target minorities, disabled children, and kids living below the poverty line. Even for the middle class, fully-abled, and wealthy Caucasian students in these classrooms, having armed police roaming the hallways detaining children for minor infractions can only leave the impression that the disenfranchised “earn” this punishment because of their station in life (and this perpetuates intolerance) and that the constant threat of prison is a reality, not an option.
America spends more money on its prisoners than its students because we have the highest prison population in the world. What would happen if we spent more money educating Americans? As in, providing more funding in schools for books, supplies, equipment, teachers, and affordable or low-cost after-school programs? What if we offered breakfast in schools for everyone so students could eat without knowing who would have gone without a meal that day? What if some of those funds were used for teaching tolerance and promoting cross-culture education instead of fear and discrimination? What if more guidance counselors and mental health workers were in schools instead of armed police? If we allocate more funds to schools, we wouldn’t need as much money to house prisoners, because there would be fewer inmates.
Money is a finite resource. From individuals to governments, we must be careful how we spend it. When you look at education versus incarceration spending, it’s clear that a budget adjustment is needed. Now.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.