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.

There are a variety of reasons for racial disparities in the prison system — the NAACP cites disparate sentencing for crack- and powder-cocaine offenses and a greater focus of public spending on imprisonment than on subsidizing drug-addiction treatment. “Misplaced Priorities” also notes that low-income whites are starting to suffer also from the rise of incarceration culture; it is estimated that one in 10 low-income white males will also be incarcerated, some because of the rise of methamphetamine.

But would reducing the number of people in the corrections system have an adverse effect on falling crime rates? All the experts polled at the press conference said no — their belief is that by shifting the prison system’s focus, we can have a more efficient system that keeps Americans safe without undermining entire communities.

Some of the most stirring remarks came from Mike Jimenez, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Jimenez focused on the emotional and community toll that American policies toward incarceration take on fragile communities. After explaining that the removal of parents and authority figures from households forces many children into the foster system (which could lead to a lifetime of believing that institutionalization is normal), Jimenez dropped a fact bomb: “Incarceration is the most expensive way to deal with drug and addiction issues, at $50,000 per person per year.”

Jimenez, a former corrections officer, also noted that incarceration rates continue to rise because America has been unwilling to invest money in its citizens, preferring to house people away from society.

And exactly how much are we talking here? Spending on prisons varies from state to state. In Indiana, the NAACP uncovered:

[F]ive high-incarceration zip codes add up to more than 56 percent of prison expenditures ($82 million) for the city. Incarceration costs for two zip codes alone in Indianapolis each amount to more than $20 million; for one, taxpayers are spending $27 million and for the other $25 million.

With statistics like this playing out all over the nation, it’s little wonder that the NAACP has chosen to tackle the criminal-justice system as part of its 21st-century battle for equality.

Latoya Peterson is the editor of and a frequent contributor to The Root.

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