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States Can Save Money Prioritizing Education Over Incarceration

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By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University

“What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” —Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

As a criminal justice professor with a background in prison administration, I am regularly assigned to teach one or more courses in corrections. One issue that I consistently address in my lectures is the disparity in correctional expenditures in relation to educational expenditures.

Pennsylvania is a prime example of a state in which more money is earmarked for corrections while funds for education are cut:

  • In the 2011-2012 state budget, Pennsylvania cut $1.1 billion from education spending.
  • In the 2013-2014 school year, facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the Philadelphia school district closed 23 schools and fired thousands of teachers, aides, and counselors in the remaining schools.
  • 75 percent of Pennsylvania schools will reduce instructional programming as a result of budget cuts.
  • Pennsylvania spends twice as much on prisons as it does on higher education.
  • Many studies report that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of prisoners did not complete high school.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) requested more than $2 billion in funding for fiscal year 2014-2015, which was a $77 million increase from former Governor Tom Corbett’s 2013-2014 budget. The reality is that incarceration is expensive. There is no denying that fact. This is partially due to an increase in inmates who require mental health and other related services to assist them in reintegrating from prison back into the community. Nearly one-fourth of inmates need mental health treatment, which requires the expense of building programs and properly training staff.

What Is the True Cost of Incarceration?
prisoner handThe overall costs for corrections services must also account for salary and benefit increases for the more than 15,000 Pennsylvania prison employees. However, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, determining the total cost of state prisons requires accounting for expenditures in all areas of government that support the prison system—not just those within the corrections budget. The additional costs passed on to taxpayers can include expenses that are centralized for administrative purposes (such as employee benefits and capital costs) and services for inmates funded through other agencies.

Prison costs outside the Pennsylvania DOC’s budget include the following:

  • Underfunded pension contributions
  • Underfunded retiree health care contributions
  • Statewide administrative costs
  • Increased inmate health care costs
  • Increased expenditures in inmate education and training
  • Capital costs

Efforts to Reduce Prison Costs
Former Governor Tom Corbett worked diligently to keep Pennsylvania’s prison population from rising further by introducing prison-reform legislation, expanding parole supervision, and introducing other noteworthy initiatives to improve overall operational efficiency. The “Justice Reinvestment” prison reform package of 2012 included several measures intended to keep low-level offenders out of prison by diverting non-violent offenders and parole violators into court programs, instead of imposing mandatory minimum sentences.

According to The Council of State Governments Justice Center, justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism. With this move, the Pennsylvania DOC expected to save nearly $140 million over five years. This was a logical initiative since every one dollar spent on treatment saves six dollars in incarceration.

However, in 2013, Pennsylvania’s prison population unexpectedly rose. This increase can largely be attributed to the fact that county judges simply sentenced more people to prison in 2013 than expected. In total, commitments rose by roughly 7 percent from 2012 figures. To further compound matters, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed nearly two dozen bills since 2012 to either extend sentences or create new offenses, diminishing the intended impact of the initial the justice reinvestment package and countering all efforts to gain some control over rising prison costs. If the current trend continues, Pennsylvania anticipates that it would need to build a new facility every 18 months.

How to Curb Incarceration through Education
According to a Philadelphia-based organization, Books Through Bars, the United States is ranked 21st in educational attainment globally, but number one in incarceration. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. While spending on incarceration continues to increase, funding for education at every level—from Head Start to colleges and universities—continues to be cut each year. States now spend four times more per capita to incarcerate than to educate. Change must occur. Consider one simple statistic: Nationally, about one in 10 young male high school dropouts is imprisoned, compared to 1 in 35 young male high school graduates. If we started spending more to educate people, we might just have fewer people to incarcerate.

Did you like this article? Here are other corrections-related articles written by Professor Pittaro:

AMU Criminal Justice Professor Michael PittaroAbout the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 26-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of setting. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 12 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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