If Prison Costs Rob Education, What Then?5 min read

The dramatic drop in crime rates in San Diego County – with the exception of hate crimes and bank robberies – mirrored to varying extents around the country, cries out for explanation. It defies the premise that economic crisis usually leads to increased crime.

Here, though, citizens must be cautious. Consider an election debate last year between the top contenders for California attorney general. Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who was to lose to his counterpart from San Francisco, Kamala Harris, asserted that historically low crime rates in California were due primarily to increased mass incarceration.

Cooley’s assertion may not be correct.

California’s prisons are certainly operating at nearly double their designed capacity, leading to federal court orders to cut the population by 33,000 prisoners, orders affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The forced reduction is a controversial move, since California has the highest recidivism rate in the United States, with two-thirds of prisoners returning within three years of release. And yet, money is being diverted from prisoner rehabilitation, social services and education, all associated with successful prisoner reintegration.

California’s mass incarceration boom, the nation’s largest, saw prisoners increase from 25,000 in 1980 to some 143,000 today. It was supported by the prison guards union, the most powerful lobby in the state, and set the pace for prison expansion in the nation as a whole. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.4 million persons. California built 21 new prisons from 1985-2005, or one a year. And in 2009, the United States saw its incarceration rate increase for the 37th year in a row.

Despite the attribution of these trends in recent decades to mass imprisonment or to the broken windows/zero tolerance policing, where police vigorously crack down on petty crimes and misdemeanors, empirical evidence for these theses is shaky to nonexistent. Thorough research on earlier crime declines attributed only a limited role to prison expansion, a quarter at most. Even that is questionable given that Canada experienced a similar drop but without a prison boom. Even those who saw some linkage in the 1990s drop in crime with incarceration see no evidence pointing to a relationship this time around.

In 1993-2001, for example, San Diego was second only to New York in experiencing the biggest crime drop of any city in the United States, with our violent crime decreasing by 45 percent and homicides decreasing by 62 percent. But New York’s crime drop was associated with aggressive zero tolerance policing and a concomitant 50 percent increase in misdemeanor arrests. San Diego’s crime drop, by contrast, was accomplished through a community policing model that resulted in a 1 percent decrease in misdemeanor arrests. In fact, from 1994 to 2000, prison sentences in San Diego were actually reduced by 25 percent.

California has racked up a dubious achievement. Our state is home to the most expensive prison system in the world, costing roughly $50,000 annually per prisoner. We now spend more of the general fund on prisons – almost 11 percent – than on higher education, which only gets 7.5 percent. California’s prison expenditures, which have increased 1,000 percent in the last three decades, are a substantial part of the state’s massive budget deficit. Moreover, prison costs are forcing cuts in education and badly needed youth services which are essential for reducing crime. Zero tolerance models of policing, the war on drugs, and the related incarceration boom are all associated with racial profiling, especially of poor young blacks and Latinos. These constituencies now disproportionately fill the state and nation’s prisons, about two-thirds of the total number.

The recent crime declines have brought sighs of relief from crime victims and citizen. But will they continue if money is diverted to prisons and away from public education and social services at all levels? One indication of fiscal priorities is that the average starting salaries of California correctional officers are higher than those of assistant professors at the University of California.

Black residents of California are now more likely to go to prison than college, a trend expressed in hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur’s lyrics: “You can’t conceal the fact, the penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.” National statistics in this regard are compelling. Incarceration rates for high school dropouts aged 18 to 24 were 31 times higher than their college-educated counterparts, and for young black men, 60 times more likely.

More recently, the increasing criminalization of immigrants – both documented and undocumented – is an especially worrisome trend. A host of new social scientific studies, including by Robert Sampson, chair of Harvard University’s Sociology Department, and criminologist Jacob Stowell and colleagues rebut the myth of immigrant criminality. These studies strongly suggest that immigration by Latinos and others to big U.S. cities not only correlate with lower crime rates, but also may be playing a causal role in crime reduction, rejuvenating many disenfranchised communities. Indeed, big cities which are hotbeds for Latino immigration, such as San Diego, New York and Los Angeles, have experienced large crime declines, with San Diego and New York today both among the nation’s safest cities.

The historically low crime rates across jurisdictions are good news. But the fact remains that such developments may be reversed if we continue to spend more money on incarceration than on education. For our county, our state and our nation, investment in public education, both K-12 and the university level, is essential to securing a safe and prosperous future. Let us hope that in this era of bloated prison expansion, rampant white-collar crime – notably on Wall Street – and concomitant fiscal crisis that citizens and politicians pay heed to these lessons and ensure that we choose the right priorities for the 21st century.


Tom Reifer is an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Diego and an Associate Fellow at the Transnational Institute. This article was originally published in the San Diego Union Tribune.