Over-criminalization and Prison Spending

jail-429639_960_720Supporting a new era of criminal justice reform, the Washington Post reports state and local spending on prisons and jails has grown three times as much over the past three decades as spending on public education for preschool through high school, according to a new analysis of federal data by the U.S. Education Department. In their brief, researchers argued taxpayers and safety would be better served by redirecting investments from incarceration to public education:

“A variety of studies have suggested that investing more in education, particularly targeted toward at-risk communities, could achieve crime reduction without the heavy social costs that high incarceration rates impose on individuals, families, and communities.”

Expenditures for incarceration and education varied from state to state. In Texas, over the 33-year period studied (1979-2013), state and local corrections (incarceration) expenditures rose 850 percent – a staggering 668 percent greater than our increase in education spending.

It’s no wonder that we spend more on prisons and jails; we love to criminalize all problems. And since at least the 80s, penalties have been increasing, leaving people in prisons longer and longer. The combined effect is that the number of people incarcerated has quadrupled while spending had also increased by more than four times. Societal problems are addressed through more criminal statutes. Children are policed in schools; the schoolyard fight is no longer handled by the principal. Drug addicts are incarcerated rather than treated. Our jails have become the largest mental health facilities in the country. We fail to utilize legislative efforts to curb incarceration for non-violent offenders such as cite and release. Instead our local jail is one of the most violent in the nation, ranking number 3 in the nation for incidents of assault.

It’s not difficult to see the affect all this has had on our police departments. Dallas Police Chief David Brown concedes:

“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country” said Brown.

“Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve” said Brown. He listed mental health, drug addiction, loose dogs, failing schools as problems the public expects ‘cops to solve.’

“Seventy percent of the African American community is being raised by single women, let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well” said Brown. “Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

Policing has increased because everything is treated as criminal. Rather than address societal issues, cops are called to “deal with the problem.” And officers are left with only one real solution: jail. If a parent is complaining their child is violent or aggressive, the child is removed from the home and placed in a juvenile detention center. If a homeless person, most often those who are also mentally ill, is a nuisance to a business, he is jailed for trespass.

Perhaps, as the Department of Education brief suggests, it’s time to reassess our spending. Focusing on our children is a step towards breaking the cycles of poverty and incarceration. Education is also a major key to the safety of our communities. Mass incarceration is not helping; in fact, it is hurting. And, we are no safer for it.

It’s time to stop and rethink our priorities as criminal justice reform takes center stage. It’s time to help people rather than simply house them in cages. It’s time to reinvest our resources into community programs and public safety rather than simply incarceration. The past three decades have shown us mass incarceration doesn’t work. Non-violent offenders can be helped rather than derailed by losing jobs, housing, and opportunities.