Where our money goes

The prisons we build, the schools we abandon

A guard walks an expensive beat at Folsom State Prison. One local professor and his students think we’d be better off investing in schools and rethinking the prisons.

A guard walks an expensive beat at Folsom State Prison. One local professor and his students think we’d be better off investing in schools and rethinking the prisons.

Photo By Kyle Monk

Professor Kevin Wehr and the students in his criminology class at Sacramento State developed this essay. They are Hafiza Arikat, Oscar Cardenas, Samuel Cruz, Jeanine Cunningham, Rachael Ekins, Brandi Fowler, Nicole Ishiura, Anna Keck, Crystal Lopez, Shanat Lopez, Ryan Morimune, Amanda Neasbitt, Andrea Nemeyer, Alondra Perez, Christina Santiago, Leslie Shebley, Michael Small, Cha Vang, Margaret Wade and Michael Wright.

California’s budget has been in a critical meltdown for the last year. We all know the rundown: Revenue from current taxes is in free fall along with the economy, there is little support for new taxes and elected officials are at a deadlock. As criminologists and sociologists, we decided to look at how we allocate funds in our state, and what we get for our money.

For 2009-10, California has budgeted the same amount of money for corrections and higher education: 13 percent of the general fund for each, or $12.3 billion for prisons and $12.3 billion for public higher education. What do we get for this $24.6 billion? When you include the general obligation bonds for prison construction, the cost per prisoner per year in California is between $47,000 and $49,000. Our prisons are comprised of roughly 70 percent people of color, mostly nonviolent drug offenders.

Currently about 50 percent of prisoners will be reincarcerated within two years of being released. Why? Because we don’t spend money on programs known to reduce recidivism, like job training, mental-health programming, drug treatment, anger management and interpersonal-skills workshops. Not to mention that jobs, especially in this economy, are hard to come by upon an ex-con’s return to their community. As of April 2009, the unemployment rate for individuals with less than a high-school degree was 14.8 percent, whereas the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 4.4 percent. Since on average 50 percent of convicts were unemployed before arrest, there is a clear link between unemployment and incarceration.

In contrast, we spend about $6,200 per student per year in public higher education (California State University and University of California combined). Currently about 60 percent of students graduate from the CSU system, but sadly this is highly dependent upon a student’s race and economic background. Students of color, along with those from poor backgrounds, have a substantially lower retention and graduation rate. In other words, those who fill our prisons are similar to those who are more likely to drop out of college.

Recidivism rates have been stable and deplorable and clearly show that our crime-control policies of the last 30 years are not working. We have not effectively reduced crime, but instead have economically destabilized communities of color by vociferously prosecuting petty drug offenses, a policy that demands copious amounts of money. We are effectively placing people in warehouses at the cost of both the dwindling funds in the state budget and the social wealth and stability of communities.

We can do better. Here’s how:

A solution to reducing incarceration rates is through education. Not only are higher levels of education correlated with a reduction in crime, but it is also a sound economic investment: For every $1 invested in the CSU system, $4.41 is returned to California’s economy. To balance the state’s budget, $600 million has been cut from that system, resulting in the denial of 10,000 students last fall.

For those already in prison instead of college, rehabilitation programs are sparse, meagerly funded (about 5 percent of the corrections budget) and are the first to get cut in a faltering economy. The “tough on crime” policies that Californians have supported, such as “three strikes” and heavily punitive drug laws, demand a burgeoning budget that encourages the warehousing of criminals rather than funding rehabilitation programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism.

These priorities are upside down. Rehabilitation programs are what we need to invest in most to reduce the chance of future crimes. Without careful attention to building such programs, we’ll be left with more prisoners in more crowded situations who are thus more likely to recidivate. By emphasizing human storage rather than rehabilitation, California is effectively allowing for the continuation of crime.

Most of us would agree that we want to prevent crime, which would keep individuals from going to prison in the first place. A myriad of events must occur before this is a full reality, but higher education that is both open and accessible to everyone is a step in the right direction. Most of us would also agree that the best function of prison is not to punish but to rehabilitate. To make these two things happen, we need to reinvest in higher education and reallocate funds in the criminal justice budget for rehabilitation programs.