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More money spent on prisons than colleges.

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  • More money spent on prisons than colleges.

    Far more spent on prisons than on colleges

    by George E. Curry

    WASHINGTON (NNPA)—State spending on prisons grew six times as fast as state spending on higher education during the 1980s and 1990s, a period of unprecedented economic growth, according to a report issued Aug. 28.

    The report—"Cellblocks or Classrooms?: The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African-American Men"—was conducted by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington-based public interest group.

    "On average, state spending on prisons grew six times the rate of higher education spending," the report says. "Idaho came in first in the race to increase its prison budget (424 percent increase), followed by Pennsylvania (413 percent), Colorado (366 percent), Texas (346 percent) and Oregon (314 percent)."

    During that period, 45 states increased spending on corrections by more than 100 percent and 18 percent of states increased their spending by more than 200 percent. "By contrast, only one state (Nevada) experienced a 100 percent increase in spending on higher education," the report notes. "A third of the states either spent less or experienced less than a 16 percent increase in higher education spending."

    The gap between spending on colleges and universities was particularly noteworthy in several states. In California, 16 percent less funding went to higher education between 1985 and 2000, while spending on prisons jumped 184 percent. In Colorado, higher education spending increased only 16 percent, while prison spending rose 366 percent. In Texas, higher education spending was up 47 percent but prison spending rose 346 percent.

    Citing an earlier study, the report notes: "Given what was known about government spending per full-time student in 1993, and the annual costs of incarceration, the researchers estimated that ‘society now (1994) spends about $2.8 billion to higher educate black males, and $10 billion to lock them up."

    "It is sad that our states are finding it easier to contribute more to incarcerating our men and women and creating a downward spiral of poverty and destitution rather than investing through our educational system to create an upward spiral of accomplishment and achievement," said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau.

    As much as the gap widened in recent years, it’s likely to grow worse in the future as states face more serious fiscal problems.

    According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, 41 states are facing budget deficits, problems likely to grow worse with the stock market woes, recently enacted tax cuts, and the continuing fallout from last September’s terrorist attacks.

    Most states allocate funding for higher education from their general operating revenues; about half of their total funds are restricted to certain programs. The proportion of general funds going to higher education decreased from 70 percent in 1985 to 53 percent in 2000.

    At the same time the state is less able to fund colleges, the federal government is also reducing its direct support to higher education, the report observes. The average Pell Grant per recipient covered 98 percent of tuition in 1986. However, by 1998, that figure was down to 57 percent. Over that same period, the federal government shifted the bulk of the financial aid it supplies from grants to loans, increasing the debt students accumulate in order to attend college.

    Largely because of so-called "get tough on crime measures," including mandatory sentences, the prison population has exploded, quadrupling from 500,000 in 1980 to 2 million in 2000.

    "The African American community has borne the brunt of our expanding correctional policies," the report states. When more than a million new prisoners were added between 1985 and 1997, the report notes, "70 percent of prison growth came from the addition of new African-American and Latino prisoners."

    It observes, "Studies and data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that close to one million of the two million people incarcerated in the United States are African American, and that an African American man born in the 1990s has a 1 in 4 chance of spending some time in prison during his lifetime."

    The report said that as of 1999, there were 603,032 Black men enrolled in college. At the same time, 791,600 Black men were behind bars. In Mississippi, for example, 24,300 Black men were in prison and 21,919 in college. In Missouri, 11,600 were in prison and 11,216 in college; in New Jersey, 18,100 Black men were in prison and 15,053 in college; in Pennsylvania, there were 20,000 men in prison and 19,585 in college; and in Wisconsin, there were 9,100 Black men in prison and 5,291 in college.

    In order to reverse these disturbing trends, authors of the report recommend repealing mandatory sentencing laws, reforming the nation’s drug laws, restructuring sentencing and reforming parole practices.

    "While state legislators have been locked into a fiscal dilemma for the last 15 years, and in this fiscal year face ‘dire choices,’ they also have a historic opportunity to choose new correctional policies that might unlock the resources they need to stave off cuts to higher education," the report concludes.