America trading books for bars Spiraling prison costs may doom state colleges

March 02, 1997|By VINCENT SCHIRALDI AND TARA-JEN AMBROSIO

SOME SOBERING statistics were revealed this month that citizens and policy-makers alike would do well to heed.

Once the centerpiece of U.S. democratic government and our hope for the future, our publicly funded higher education is now groaning under the weight of mushrooming prison budgets.

Despite calls from President Clinton to make "the 13th and 14th years of education as universal to all Americans as the first 12," a study by the Justice Policy Institute found that for the first time, more money was being spent on building prisons than colleges.

This marks a sharp turnabout in U.S. funding priorities and bodes very poorly for future generations of young people.

In fact, over the past 20 years, there was a 1,200 percent increase in spending on prisons and only a 419 percent increase in spending on higher education. Since 1987, spending on prisons has increased 30 percent while university spending decreased 18 percent. In just one year, between 1994 and 1995, states increased their spending for prison construction by $926 million and decreased university construction funding by $954 million.

Prison construction funding is particularly portentous for future spending trends.

Operating costs for any particular state department can be changed from year to year by legislative or gubernatorial acts. But most U.S. prisons are being built in rural towns desperate for employment. Once built, they are difficult to close and tend to be filled with mostly nonviolent, inner-city, minority inmates.

It is extremely likely that prisons built today will outlive anyone reading this piece and will saddle today's toddlers with a tax burden well into their retirement.

In the past 10 years, Maryland's prison population has nearly doubled, growing from 12,000 to 22,000 inmates. Nationwide, the prison population has tripled since the 1980s - about 1.6 million men and women are now incarcerated. It would be one thing if U.S. prisons were full of Charles Mansons, but that is hardly the case. According to the National Criminal Justice Commission, 84 percent of those additional prisoners have been nonviolent offenders.

The institute also looked specifically at trends in California and Washington, D.C. Since 1984, the Golden State has constructed 21 prisons and only one state university.

This funding shift has had a dramatic impact on tuition and other fees paid by students, rendering public higher education increasingly out of reach for middle- and low-income families. Fees in the California state university system have grown by 80 percent since 1984, for example.

As students are coming to understand when they pay their annual tuition increases, they are not paying for a better education, they are paying for prisons. Class availability has dropped so precipitously that in many of the state's universities, it now takes 5.5 years to get a four-year degree.

White and black families have been hit hard by these misguided policy decisions, although African-Americans have suffered worse.

White families must spend 36 percent of their median household income to send one child to the University of California. For black families, it's an astonishing 57.5 percent of median household income.

As universities have become increasingly out of reach for young blacks, prisons have become exponentially more accessible. There has been a fivefold increase in the number of black men in California's prisons since 1980, most of whom are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses.

Meanwhile, despite the much-ballyhooed reverse discrimination that many believe affirmative action has created, black enrollment in California's universities has increased only from 4.6 percent to 5.6 percent of the total student body over the past 15 years.

There are four times as many black men in prison in California as are enrolled in higher education, despite the fact that the university system is more than three times larger than the prison system. As shocking as that is, in just five years there will be seven times as many black men in California's prisons as in its universities, according to current estimates.

If anything, the situation in Washington is worse. Washington has an incarceration rate that is four times the national average and the University of the District of Columbia is in danger of being decertified.

Today, there are actually more Washington residents in prison and jail than in the university. Fully 98 percent of the inmates are African-American, and blacks in the district are incarcerated at 35 times the rate of whites.

If incarceration were the simple answer to crime that so many claim it to be, Washington should be a drug- and crime-free nirvana.

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