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States’ High Prison Spending Leaves Less for Classrooms

“Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated,” President Obama tells us, noting that it’s roughly the cost of providing universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old or eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities.  As our major report explains, states are shouldering a large share of that cost — a budget decision that leaves less money for other, more productive investments such as K-12 and higher education.

Between 1986 and 2013, state corrections spending jumped by 141 percent, after adjusting for inflation, from about $20 billion to over $47 billion.  The increases over this period for K-12 and higher education were much smaller — 69 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively — and those figures don’t account for enrollment increases.  (See graph.)

As the President noted, rising corrections costs result directly from the huge run-up in the prison population in recent decades, which in turn reflects states’ explicit policy decisions to lock up more people for greater lengths of time.

States can responsibly rein in corrections spending and free up resources for more productive investments through criminal justice reforms that lower their prison populations.