Common Sense on Prison, Education Funds

Calling state prison and education funding priorities "out of whack,'' Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California proposed a constitutional amendment this week barring the state from spending a higher percentage on prisons than higher education. He said that in the last 30 years, prison spending increased from 3 percent of the state general fund to 11 percent while higher education spending declined from 10 percent to 7.5 percent.

"Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future,'' he said.

Indeed. It is hard to know where the specific proposal will go, as cheering by university officials was countered by condemnation from powerful corrections unions. Schwarzenegger is proposing prison savings through privatization. But the spirit of his speech should become a governing principle in a nation where the effects of the prison boom remain completely out of whack.

Nationwide, the Pew Center on the States says prison spending rose six times more than spending for higher education in adjusted dollars from 1987 to 2007. The national federal and state prison population nearly tripled in that time, from 585,000 to 1.6 million. Including local jails, the United States had 2.3 million people locked up by 2007. This is more than the 1.5 million inmates in more-numerous China and 2 1/2 times more than third-place Russia.

It is a good bet that the United States has frittered away a decent chunk of our former global advantages with gulag politics. Over the years, I have cited many examples of this phenomenon from national and state crime bills passed during the last quarter-century. New York State went from spending twice as much on universities in 1988 to spending more on prisons than higher education in 1996. President Clinton's push for national service was dwarfed by a $23 billion 1993 Senate crime bill that spent twice as much on boot camps than national service and $3 billion for prisons but only $1.2 billion for job training and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders.

Massachusetts was no different than any other state. According to Pew data, the commonwealth had the nation's sixth-highest ratio of corrections spending compared to higher education spending. In 1987, Massachusetts spent 30 cents on corrections for every dollar spent on state colleges and universities. In 2007, the ratio was virtually dollar for dollar. The ratio of adults under some form of correctional control in the state soared from 1 in 127 in 1982 to 1 in 24 in 2008. This is despite many studies showing that investing in education has a massive benefit-cost ratio to individuals, to society and to the economy.

Politicians have long understood that trade-off, and by the mid-1990s some prominent Republicans agreed with Democrats that we could not jail our way out of social and economic problems with three-strike laws that condemned nonviolent offenders along with murderers. But almost always, harsh political winds blew down sweeping reform, guaranteeing the continued siphoning of billions of dollars away from treatment, rehabilitation, and education.

The budget crisis in the states finally has both Republican and Democratic governors talking about downsizing expensive and overcrowded prisons and providing more treatment to nonviolent drug offenders. But the laws that filled the jails await reform. For instance, one of the most discriminatory laws of the get-tough era, one that punishes possession of crack cocaine more than powdered cocaine, remains on the federal books 15 years after Clinton said that the disparities were wrong. Proposals to end the disparities are being debated in Congress and President Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, says the administration wants to do away with them.

The laws are so embarrassing that this week, in an interview with the Boston Globe editorial board, Democratic senatorial candidate and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley called the cocaine laws "crazy.'' It is refreshing to hear a Democrat like her and a Republican like Schwarzenegger say that our criminal justice priorities are insane, with education always getting the strait-jacket. It is the first step out of the asylum.