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“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”   -Haile Selassie

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Investing in Prisons Over Education is not Being Smart on Crime

by Lindsay McCluskey and Robert Rooks

What does it mean to be "tough on crime"? Does "toughness" depend on how many people we imprison? Or should the indicator be whether our society combats crime at its root? Current policies point directly at the former option, but we need to be smarter on crime.

The United States leads the world in incarceration with 2.3 million people behind bars; while we are home to five percent of the world's population, we house 25 percent of its prisoners. That means that one in 31 adults in the United States is currently in prison, jail, or on probation or parole (1). Is this because we have a larger population than most countries and logically imprison more people? Nope. China's population is four times greater than ours, yet China imprisons one million less people, even with its draconian criminal laws. Are Americans inherently more violent than citizens in other countries? The fact that over half our inmates were convicted of non-violent drug offenses suggests that it has more to do with our criminal laws than our nature. Has the incarceration rate risen proportionally with our country's population growth? Well, between 1970 and 2000 the general population rose by less than 40 percent, yet our incarceration rate skyrocketed by 500 percent (2). So how did the world's greatest defender of freedom snatch freedom away from more of its citizens than the harshest of totalitarian states?

American lawmakers have criminalized a vast array of non-violent, victimless behavior involving narcotics. Drug arrests have more than tripled in the last 25 years, reaching a record high of 1.8 million in 2005 (3). These aren't the violent drug kingpins in Miami Vice or Bad Boys. In 2005, nearly 43 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses, the mere possession of which accounted for 79 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990's (1). Today, over half of the 2.3 million people behind bars were convicted of non-violent drug offenses. More than half of federal offenders sentenced in 2002 were in the lowest criminal history category, and nearly 9 out of ten had no weapon involvement (2). Put simply, our elected officials have become obsessed with imprisoning low-level drug users. It has gotten so bad that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in Brown v. Plata that the California prison system was so overcrowded that it violated the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

So what does this matter for higher education? Our unprecedentedly high inmate population is very expensive to maintain. The United States spends $70 billion a year on incarceration, $50 billion of which comes from state governments. This matters because $9 out of every $10 in state prison funding comes out of state general funds, the same accounts that fund higher education. So it should be of no surprise that in the last two decades, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

The Great Recession has done little to curb this trend. In 2009, despite the worst national economy in 30 years, 33 states spent a larger proportion of their general funds on prisons than in 2008. In fact, in fiscal year 2008, prisons' share of state general funds grew more than other category of state spending. At the same time, 2009 saw tuition hikes at public four-year colleges average over 6 percent, some reaching into the double-digits. Having to pay more for their college education than ever before, student borrowers now owe an average of $25,000 in loan debt. Today, Americans owe more in student loan debt than credit card debt, and the number is closing in fast on $1 trillion. Meanwhile, state legislators claim we have a "spending problem" while they cut higher education budgets and infuse prisons with ever more money.

We do not have a spending problem. Elected officials choose to terrify the electorate into supporting laws that lead to mass incarceration. There are compassionate and effective ways to wage the war on crime; politicians simply chose to ignore them. While we've outlined many of the problems, below are a few possible solutions to remedy our justice system -- making it "smart on crime" rather than "tough on crime".

  • More than fifty percent of all prison and jail inmates have mental health or drug problems. Over half of female inmates have been physically or sexually abused. Half of all inmates in state and federal prisons were abused or dependent on drugs before they were imprisoned. One would expect policymakers to invest in rehabilitation efforts that address the root causes of why criminals initially turned to crime or drugs. Also, drug rehabilitation is seven times more effective for dealing with nonviolent drug offenders than prison. Yet today, only one in seven prison inmates are receiving treatment, down from one in three inmates in 1991 (1).
  • Despite their proven ability to reduce recidivism, inmate educational and vocational training is severely restrictive and arbitrarily administered. A recent study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) found that, of 43 states surveyed, 13 states accounted for 86 percent of all inmates enrolled in post-secondary education programs. In total, just six percent of all U.S. prison inmates were enrolled in a program during the 2009-10 academic year. Of that, less than a quarter obtained an associates or bachelor's degree.
  • Online courses would expand educational access to a large number of inmates, yet public officials don't like the idea of giving inmates access to the internet, and no state has yet demonstrated the courage to implement a pilot program. Yet IHEP research analyst Brian Sponsler believes "the technology exists to provide online educational opportunities in an environment that doesn't sacrifice safety." Denying programs that would better the lives of countless flies in the face of every value our criminal justice system purports to uphold.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his famous Democracy in America that, "in no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States." How far we've come since 1831. Today, we are the world leader in locking people up -- not because we have the world's largest supply of violent criminals, but because we have allowed our elected officials to criminalize the most trivial of actions. The ramifications of these eerily Orwellian laws have been dire for higher education, which has suffered immensely from depleted state coffers. Unless we drastically reform our spending priorities, and move toward "smart on crime" policies, our City on the Hill will continue to resemble Rikers Island instead of the Library of Alexandria.

Lindsay McCluskey is President of the United States Student Association. Robert Rooks is Director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program.

1) Stevenson, Bryan, "Drug Policy, Criminal Justice and Mass Imprisonment." Global Commission on Drug Policies. January 2011
2) King, Ryan; Marc Mauer; Malcolm Young. "Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship." The Sentencing Project. 2005.
3) Allen, Rob; Chris Hallam; Dave Bewley-Taylor. "The Incarceration of Drug Offenders: An Overview." International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College, University of London. March 2009.



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The United States Student Association, the country’s oldest and largest student-led organization, represents over 4 million students at over 400 campuses across the nation.  We work to develop current and future leaders and amplify the student voice at the local, state, and national levels by mobilizing grassroots power to win concrete victories on student issues.  Contact USSA Communications Director Jake Stillwell with any questions, comments, or concerns about the Communications Department at