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States' Brilliant Budget Solution: Sacrifice Public Education to Spend More on Ineffective Prisons

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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March 4, 2011

California’s governor wants to eliminate the entire $30 million the state spends on public libraries, while spending more than $50 million to imprison two dozen bedridden inmates who pose no threat to public safety.

Unfortunately, these types of absurd budget “solutions” are more common than you might think. There’s no shortage of debate about how to deal with fiscal crises around the nation; the protests in Wisconsin and other states over budget cuts reflect the passion surrounding this hot topic.

But there’s one thing everyone who cares about the budget, our safety, and basic fairness should be able to agree on: reducing our already bloated and inefficient prison system is a good start.

However, several governors and legislators around the nation are proposing cuts to education, health care, and employee benefits, while at the same time expanding or refusing to cut spending on prisons — a massive expenditure known to be inefficient and problematic, with limited benefits to public safety. It should further enrage us that many states are also using federal stimulus dollars earmarked for education to fund their prisons.

We just endured the sharpest recession since the Great Depression, and our recovery remains fragile. Not only are we struggling to find jobs, save our homes, keep our small businesses alive, and provide for our children, but our governments are also struggling to find a way to make do with less. Since we’re earning less and spending less, government revenue (from taxes on income, sales, and property) has plummeted, while government spending has increased to fund unemployment benefits and other safety nets necessary to prevent families from spiraling into poverty. Revenues are making a slow comeback, but they still have a long way to go to reach pre-recession levels.

Our budget woes won’t be disappearing anytime soon. This week, the federal government narrowly escaped a full government shutdown when the Senate approved a temporary measure giving leaders in Washington two weeks to find a permanent budget solution.

And the battles are just beginning in our states. More than 40 states project billions of dollars in budget shortfalls for 2012. But unlike the feds, most states have balanced-budget laws requiring elimination of the gap between state revenues and expenses.

Between the states and federal government, we spend almost $70 billion per year of taxpayer dollars on prisons and corrections, and we are the largest incarcerators in the world. Over the last 25 years, state corrections spending grew by 674 percent, outpacing thegrowth of other government expenditures. Corrections is now the fourth-largest category of state spending (following education, Medicaid, and transportation).

Despite this increase in spending, recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged and crime rates haven’t dropped. This is because most of the people we throw into prison have committed minor infractions or drug abuse crimes. Across the board, research shows that alternatives to prison (like treatment or probation) for these lower-risk, nonviolent offenders not only cost significantly less than jail time, but also ensure lower rates of recidivism. Throwing small-time offenders into prison doesn’t increase public safety — it only takes money out of our wallets.

Fortunately, several leaders across the spectrum have come together to form a bipartisan voice recognizing the need to cut prison spending. Some states have also come to this commonsense conclusion as well. Texas has already implemented comprehensive legislative reforms and reduced its prison population — and budget — without affecting public safety. And several states have included prison cuts in their budget plans for this year.

But some officials in other states haven’t seen this connection yet — or won’t. Arizona’s governor is trying to balance her budget by adding $8.4 million to prison spending while slashing $234 million from public universities.

Most states are at a crossroads — a critical junction that will decide whether their futures unravel. Florida is thinking about following in Texas’ successful footsteps. In Indiana, prosecutors are lining up against a systemic reform bill that otherwise has broad bipartisan support. This is a national moment — one that will determine whether we continue down the path of overincarceration or take this opportunity to reexamine our ineffective and expensive prison and budget policies. We hope that legislators in these states will make the right choice.

Through our nationwide initiative, the ACLU is actively encouraging legislators in all states to streamline their corrections systems — sending people to prison only when truly necessary and saving our precious government dollars for things that are far more important. We cannot idly stand by and let our states continue to spend billions of valuable dollars on expanding inefficient and ineffective prison systems in a time of national financial crisis. The time has come to look to those states that have made successful reforms, and promptly follow suit.

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