Education and Incarceration: Priority Shifts

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the NAACP has begun advocacy on a new and worthy topic:

Over the past two decades, states’ spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of spending on higher education, notes the report, “Misplaced Priorities.” In 2009, while K-12 and higher education spending declined during the recession, 33 states spent more discretionary dollars on prisons than they had the year before.

The overall annual price tag for incarceration, youth detention, and parole in the United States: nearly $70 billion – of which $50 billion is spent at the state level.

The current system largely warehouses people who need treatment for drug and mental health problems, while at the same time taking dollars away from education, one of the best ways society can prevent crime, the report says.

At least read the article, if not the report, but the report is worth some time, too.

Rehabilitation Options

Apropos of nothing in particular, I thought this article was interesting and potentially useful across lots of disciplines.

What works and what doesn’t work to solve a social problem is often no mystery.  The mystery is why we so often persist in doing what doesn’t work.  The topic of Tuesday’s column — prisoner re-entry into the community — offers myriad examples.   One is the practice of dropping people getting out of jail or prison right back into the neighborhoods where they got in trouble in the first place.  Intuition tells us that this is a bad idea: the old street corners and the old friends seem like a recipe for the old troubles.  Research on this idea is rare and hard to do — it’s tough to get around the problem that the person who chooses not to go home may have other qualities that make him successful.

Prisoners are often aware of the temptations they will face upon resuming their old lives.  Nearly half of the prisoners in Illinois surveyed by the Urban Institute said they didn’t want to go back home upon release.  But states not only encourage people to go home again, some of them demand it — in most states, prisoners released on parole are legally required to go back to their county of last residence.

This rule is one of many protocols for dealing with former prisoners that seem to make little sense.  Many prisoners are sent home to arrive in the middle of the night with only a few dollars in their pockets.  Virtually no one in prison in the United States today can get methadone maintenance therapy, the gold standard drug treatment.  Prisoners are no longer eligible for the grants that used to make getting a college education in prison possible. This system is designed to fail.  And it does.

It is not failing quietly.  On the positive side, there are programs all over the country that recognize that helping prisoners remake their lives is both humane and cost-effective.