Prisons versus Public Schools

The U S is the world’s leader in incarceration. Yet, this approach is ineffective and has not contributed to a reduction in crime. Research and data from the Sentencing Project and the Vera Institute of Justice asserts that continuing to incarcerate United States citizens will only serve to increase cost and make us less safe and cause more harm. California, which leads all states in incarceration of youth and adults, has the biggest and most expensive system. The defining characteristics of the California system are its scale, cost, and ineffectiveness.

Consider that the fastest growing segment of California deficit-ridden budget is the prison system, reflecting severe overcrowding, generous labor contracts and federal court pressure to reform inmate health care.  According to the Sacramento Bee, “Corrections has jumped from less than $5 billion a year to more than $10 billion in the last decade, over twice as fast as school spending, the biggest budget item.” It now costs about $45,000 a year to feed, clothe and medicate each of the state’s 170,000-plus inmates, or roughly five times what taxpayers spend on a typical public school student. And that doesn’t count what it costs to supervise tens of thousands of parolees.

Yet, despite this cost, California has the highest rate of recidivism in the nation. That is, more people come back to prison after leaving. Fortunately, some states have come to realized that they can not afford to keep putting as many people in prison because it does not work. Prison is very punitive and should be saved for those who are the greatest threat to public safety. However, California has defaulted to prison, taking money away from other areas that are essential to government.

At this moment in time, California is faced with the nightmare budget scenario of imposing severe cuts to the poor, all of which will devastate their lives at a time when the economy is in an unfriendly state. California can choose to rethink its public safety strategy, starting with shrinking its prison system. New York has the fastest rate of shrinking prison system, and New York leads all states in crime reduction. It is all about delivering public safety in a different way.  California needs at this moment to reform its prison system. There are ways to do this; ways to shrink the system, and get the public more money and more public safety at the same time. Ironically, the lacking of funding for quality education for poor students, coupled with the proposed draconian cuts in funding and services to the poor, will funnel these students into the prison system, wasting more lives and money. Californians have an opportunity to rid themselves of prison system which is costly, violent, harmful, and ineffective, and use the money that would go to maintaining a broken system and to funding quality education for the poor. This in itself would save money, prevent crime, and would be a prudent investment our present and our future.


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