The Price of Choosing Jails Over Schools

As government budget battles reach a fevered pitch, a new NAACP report argues that spending more on education and less on incarceration could turn around many minority communities.

As federal, state and local governments across the nation slash their budgets to close looming shortfalls, there is one clear winner in the budget battles: correctional systems, which cost the nation nearly $70 billion annually. During the last two decades, funding for prisons eclipsed spending for higher education sixfold.

The NAACP is looking to reverse this trend with their new report, “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate,” a 57-page examination of how our nation invests more in the prison system than in the education of our youth. This prioritization, kicked into hyperdrive during the last two decades, has led to a disturbing trend: Many of the neighborhoods that have the lowest rates of education have the highest rates of incarceration, with generations entering the same failing school systems before exiting to the criminal-justice system.

During Thursday’s press conference, NAACP President Ben Jealous advocated for “better, cheaper, safer” alternatives to the current system. The report, released under NAACP’s “Smart and Safe” campaign, hopes to illuminate how society is overinvesting in prisons as a way to solve social problems — which unfortunately fails to break the cycles of drug addiction, domestic violence and poverty that plague so many of our communities. “Misplaced Priorities” explains:

Largely as a result of the War on Drugs — which includes police stops, arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences — more than half of all prison and jail inmates — including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates — are now those with mental health or drug problems.

During the Q&A session at the press conference, Laura Murphy of the ACLU pointed out that dollar for dollar, drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for rehabilitating those suffering from drug addiction. While some states have begun shifting resources from building more prisons to substance-abuse programs, most states have not critically analyzed the role the prison system plays in exacerbating social ills.

What’s noteworthy about this effort is that for once, the newly minted “smart on crime” reforms are being embraced by people on both sides of the aisle. The NAACP asked prominent conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, to help them champion their “smart on crime” reforms. Norquist said that there needs to be more focus on whether criminal-justice funding is used wisely. At one point, Norquist became emphatic about holding the criminal-justice system accountable, noting, “Conservatives cannot give a blank check to the prison system!” While Norquist’s comments downplayed the role of prevention and social reforms, even conservative leaders agree with progressives that the amount of funding flowing toward the prison system is excessive.

This is refreshing, particularly considering that conservatives were instrumental in creating the war on drugs. The term, first used by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, described an offensive toward stemming the trade of illegal drugs in America, which eventually extended to both domestic and international initiatives.

In 1988 President George H.W. Bush created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was elevated to the Cabinet level during the Clinton administration. The policies championed by ONDCP actually opened the floodgates for nonviolent offenders to become institutionalized, a trend that resulted in the war on drugs taking an outsize toll on black and Latino communities, as well as impoverished communities around the nation. “Misplaced Priorities” reveals:

While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts. […]