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Prisons or Education - Where Should Tax Dollars Be Spent

  • Published: 2012-09-23 : Author: Cunha & Holcomb, P.C.
  • Synopsis: United States continues to spend money locking up its citizens while at the same time cutting funding for higher education.

Main Document

Where Should Tax Dollars Be Spent: On Prisons or Education? The United States has increased spending on prisons while education budgets suffer. Is this how our tax dollars should be spent

There is an oft-repeated refrain that budgets are moral documents, reflecting the values of the people who created them. What does it say, then, that the United States continues to spend more and more money locking up its citizens, while at the same time cutting funding for higher education

In 1980, approximately 220 of every 100,000 people in the United States were incarcerated. Now, the U.S. incarceration rate is a staggering 743 per 100,000 residents. Approximately one-quarter of these inmates are imprisoned on non-violent drug charges.

During the same time period, state spending for public higher education was cut by nearly one-third nationwide. Massachusetts has not been exempt from this trend. In 2007, the state spent roughly the same amount on incarceration as it did on higher education. However, between 2008 and 2012, the state's higher education appropriation fell by 37 percent. Although the state was in a period of budgetary reductions, the corrections system did not see nearly the same cuts.

Incarceration Brings Life-Long Consequences

Of course, all this prison spending does more than just impact the cost of college. It puts a whole population of people at risk of being dependent on the system - or even worse, shuttling in and out of prison - for their entire life.

Going to prison makes it extremely difficult to gain an economic foothold later in life. According to research by the education group Public Administration, approximately 60 percent of ex-convicts remain unemployed a year after release. By contrast, the unemployment rate among recent college graduates is around 12 percent. The disparity does not stop there: ex-convicts can expect a median income of about $22,000 per year, while the median annual income for college graduates is approximately $55,000.

Many employers simply refuse to hire people who have spent time in prison, no matter how old the conviction. With unemployment as high as it is, weeding out applicants who have "checked the box" indicating a past felony conviction seems like an obvious first step to many businesses inundated with job-seekers.

The negative effects of incarceration extend well beyond employment and income. In nearly all states, prisoners lose their right to vote. In Massachusetts, that right is restored after release, but many states impose much lengthier bans on felon voting. Some ban felons from voting for life, even after their probation is over. In addition, many former inmates find it difficult to qualify for food assistance, student loans, visitation time with their children and a whole host of other rights and privileges that most people take for granted.

Are We Creating a Permanent Underclass

Many worry that the trend toward mass incarceration is creating a second class of citizens destined to lag behind their peers. While some young people head off to college, others from less-fortunate backgrounds get caught up in the cycle of poverty and addiction that so often leads to incarceration. This disparity tends to affect minority communities the most - as of 2007, there were three times as many African-American people living in prisons than in college dorms. The rate for Hispanic Americans was only slightly lower, with 2.7 prisoners for every dormitory resident.

None of this is to say that people who commit serious crimes shouldn't be held accountable for their actions. But, these statistics show that our current trend toward widespread incarceration and lengthy prison sentences is not the way to build a better society. Perhaps a more compassionate model that focused on providing opportunities to people who might otherwise become entangled in the criminal justice system would prove more effective.

In the meantime, the negative impacts of incarceration make it all the more important for people charged with crimes to vigorously defend their rights. Even if the charge cannot be completely disproved, an experienced criminal defense attorney may be able to help the defendant minimize the consequences of a conviction.

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