Prison vs education spending reveals California's priorities
San Francisco Chronicle
May 29, 2007

It has been said that a government's budget isn't only a statement of priorities, but also a reflection of a society's values. California's proposed budget reveals skewed priorities and hollow values.

For the first time, and unique among large states, California will soon spend more on its prisons than on its public universities. It has been projected that over the next five years, the state's budget for locking up people will rise by 9 percent annually, compared with its spending on higher education, which will rise only by 5 percent. By the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $15.4 billion will be spent on incarcerating Californians, as compared with $15.3 billion spent on educating them. Yet, despite this historic increase in prison funding, leading legislators -- including supporters of the increase -- and even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office agree that this is simply throwing good money after bad, given the rank mismanagement plaguing California's corrections system.

But they'll spend the money anyway.

More prison spending will mean better pay for the highest paid, most politically influential prison personnel in the nation, as well as more prisons, but no one is certain it will result in a better corrections system.

There's no uncertainty, however, about the benefits that flow from investing in education. Nothing predicts future success better than a good education, and nothing guarantees failure more than the lack of one. "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision. "It is the very foundation of good citizenship ... . In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."

Studies have ratified the truth of those words, more than 50 years later. According to a recent report by Northeastern University, the median annual earnings in 2004-2005 of young black men with a bachelor's degree were 2.5 times those of high school graduates and 14.5 times higher than those of high school dropouts.

The correlation between the lack of educational opportunities and imprisonment could not be more direct. The same study found that 18-to-24-year-old male high school dropouts had an incarceration rate 31 times that of males who graduated from a four-year college. If you're a young black male with no high school diploma, it's worse: You're 60 times more likely to end up behind bars than your classmates who earned a bachelor's degree.

Despite these realities, we not only continue to feed the prison system at the expense of funding education, we've also blurred the lines separating the educational and criminal justice systems, creating a school-to-prison pipeline with a predictable and steady flow. Police have become an increasing presence in our public elementary, middle and high schools. Schools are spending millions of dollars to hire their own police forces or contracting with local authorities. Kids are routinely searched before being allowed into the building, under surveillance by video cameras in hallways and subjected to random searches of their backpacks and lockers.

Behavior that used to warrant a trip to the principal's office can now result in a trip to jail on charges of assault. Kids not old enough to drive have been arrested for behavior ranging from throwing a temper tantrum to talking during school assemblies and violating the dress code. It's kids of color who bear the disproportionate brunt of these zero-tolerance policies.

Something is clearly wrong when the government's most effective affirmative-action program is the preference people of color receive when entering not college, but the criminal-justice system, and when the state's budget proposes to build up prisons instead of universities.

Who is going to make it right? Even public officials who know this budget priority is wrongheaded refuse to fight it, preferring to pander to prison personnel and afraid of appearing "soft on crime." The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed: "Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity comes along and asks the question, 'Is it popular?' "

"But," King added, "Conscience asks the question 'Is it right?' "

Perhaps we should ask our legislators and the governor the same question.

Maya Harris is the executive director of the ACLU of Northern California.

This article appeared on page B - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle