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The US has increased spending on prisons three times as fast as spending on schools

Reuters/Elizabeth Shafiroff
Prison yards over school yards?
  • Amy X. Wang
By Amy X. Wang


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

If budgets reflect values, the US has made its priorities quite clear.

State and local governments are much more willing to pay to jail people than educate them, according to a report (pdf) released from the Department of Education yesterday (July 8). The department found that spending on correctional facilities increased by 324%, to $71 billion, from 1979 to 2013, while public education (kindergarten to high school) only increased by 107%, to $534 billion, over that same period.

Keep in mind that’s a national average: in some states like Wyoming and Texas, the rate of prison spending has grown roughly eight times more quickly than school spending.

Recently, the Obama administration has pushed to decrease America’s rate of mass incarceration—one of the highest and most disproportionate in the world—while also asking for more funding to be put toward education, even for people currently in prison. There’s evidence, too, that higher graduation rates at the high school level can lead to fewer criminal arrests.

American states’ enthusiasm for prison spending is all the more startling when it’s compared against their interest in higher education. According to the report, state spending on public colleges and universities has stayed pretty much flat since 1990—but state spending on prisons? That’s now double what it was; in nearly half the country, taxpayers pay more for jails than they do for colleges.

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