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Educate, don't incarcerate

When American’s For Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist and the NAACP’s Ben Jealous get together, you had better pay attention because it does not happen often. Last week the two of them teamed up together to release the NAACP’s “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate – Excessive Spending on Incarceration Undermines Educational Opportunity and Public Safety In Communities.”

Those of us who are concerned about the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world and falling tests scores have been carping for years about the amount of money we spend on locking people up. However, there were no statistics to back up what many of us knew instinctively was true.

The report begins with some of the broad-brush facts: In 2009, the U.S. was in the deepest recession in 30 years, but 33 states spent a larger proportion of their discretionary dollars on prisons than they had the year before.

We know some of the facts – we have heard them before. Of the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated, a fourth of those are in for drugs. Many people are incarcerated from certain zip codes. In New York City, half of those in jail or prison come from 24 of the 200 neighborhoods, at a cost of about half a billion dollars!

The researchers of the report looked at the lowest-performing schools and found that in three cities they studied (Los Angles, Philadelphia and Houston) certain neighborhoods had huge incarceration rates. In Los Angeles, 67 percent of the lowest-performing schools are in neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration. In Philadelphia it was 66 percent and in Houston a whopping 83 percent.

The amount spent by states is over $50 billion dollars a year to run the prison system. This amount was something Grover Norquist became concerned about. He began to talk to other conservatives about how these incarnation rates were impacting state budgets. As he told CNN host Judy Woodruff, “I don’t get weepy about the whole idea. But we are keeping some people in prison who might be better off in drug rehabilitation or under other kinds of house arrest. … Let’s not waste money on prisons and the judicial system if its not getting us safer streets and safer cities.”

In the same interview, the NAACP’s Jealous pointed out that drug rehab is seven times more effective than prison. As a reporter, I have found that if you interview any white-collar criminal who has been incarcerated, he can tell you anything from the sales techniques to homegrown drug recipes for crystal meth – inmates share their street secrets with fellow prisoners.

What happens in these neighborhoods is that the schools do not have resources. Instead they have role models that are drug dealers. Jealous spoke about how some of theses schools don’t have books, computers or even recess. In our high-tech society, how is a “graduate” (if he even gets there) going to compete for a job if he does not have basic computer skills?

This is not rocket science. Kids need hope and opportunity. When over a 20-year period states increased spending for higher education by 21 percent but corrections by 127 percent, something is drastically wrong. In their wisdom, Philadelphia eliminated 7,000 free transit passes for students, and they have a 50 percent dropout rate! The Pennsylvania prison system pays $33,000 a year to incarcerate one person but only $4,000 per year on higher education. That is misplaced money, and every American who pays taxes should be concerned about.

The story is not all bad; some states have taken the bull by the horns and changed their spending priorities. New Jersey reduced the prison population by 19 percent and Michigan by 12 percent. They shortened prison stays for people who were engaged in education; they increased parole programs and they made education a priority.

Too many conservatives say that parents are responsible. In a perfect world they should be – but too many of these children have parents who are absent or incarcerated, and they have little or no education themselves. Changing these lives and state budgets has to be done by government, otherwise government pays on the other end and we get the situation outlined in the NAACP report. The result is lots of costs and no lowering of the crime rate.

Norquist and Jealous are a strange combination, but they are right. We need to change the equation. We need more money in the right places.