I was shocked by a statistic I heard for the first time at the NACDL conference last month. The United States spends three times more money to incarcerate its citizens than it does on K-12 Education!

That’s horrible! Not only does it show how grossly disproportionate our country’s priorities are, but it helps explain why we have such a high incarceration rate.

A high percentage of individuals entering into the prison system are uneducated and lack basic skills necessary to earn a decent living. So what do we do? We take these people and warehouse them for 5, 10 or even more years and then release them no better than when they came in. In fact, they are worse – they still are uneducated and lack skills, but they now have the stigma of a felony on their record plus the psychological damage that a long prison sentence produces.

According to the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration, the fee to cover the average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates was $36,299.25 ($99.45 per day) in FY 2017. Compare that to the cost of education. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

We’re not suggesting that getting arrested should be a free ticket to a college education, but there are clearly more efficient and cost-effective ways of dealing with prison inmates than pure incarceration. At least ones that return people to society better off than when they came in. As was suggested during the conference; the things that keep people from coming back to prison are the same things that keep people from going there in the first place – education, a decent job, housing stability.

By incorporating “rehabilitation” into “corrections” (corrections might be a misnomer, since nothing is being “corrected”), at least the government has a chance of getting a return on their spend in the form of lower recidivism.

We also need to focus more effort on prevention, rather than punishment. The chart below speaks for itself. Spending more on K-12 education than on incarceration is where crime prevention needs to start!


K-12 Education
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