According to a new study by researchers at the federal Department of Educations Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, over a 33-year span, corrections spending by state and local governments rose by 324%, climbing from $17 billion in 1979-1980 to $71 billion in 2012-2013.

That represented more than a threefold increase for state and local government outlays for elementary and secondary education during the same period, which went up 107%, from $258 billion to $535 billion. Higher education spending by state and local governments at the same time rose by just 5%, from $67 billion in 1979-1980 to $71 billion in 2012-2013. All figures are calculated using constant 2012-2013 dollars.

Over a 23-year period (from 1989-1990 to 2012-2013), the rate of increased state and local spending on corrections similarly outpaced increases for education spending, as corrections outlays rose 89%, climbing from $37 billion to $71 billion, while higher education spending rose 5% (going from $67 billion to $71 billion).

Calculating state and local expenditures per capita shows the same general trend in even starker detail. Over the 33-year period (between 1979-1980 and 2012-2013), per capita spending on corrections rose 185%, more than double the 73% rate for per-pupil spending on elementary and secondary education. Over the 23-year period starting ten years later, there was an overall 44% increase in per capita spending on corrections; in sharp contrast, over the same period spending on higher education fell by 28% per full-time equivalent student.

Corrections outlays in all states rose faster than did spending for elementary and secondary education. In all but two states (Massachusetts and New Hampshire), per capita spending for corrections rose faster than did per-student spending for elementary and secondary education. For higher education, spending increases were not only higher for corrections, whether calculated by total outlays or per capita, but per-pupil spending for postsecondary students actually declined in all but four states.

The spending figures vary widely among states: Texas and New Mexico had the greatest disparity, with state and local corrections spending there rising more than 600% over the 33-year period than did educational spending, while New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts were the only states were correctional spending increased less than 100% more than educational outlays. Correctional spending increases also exceeded increases for per-pupil elementary and secondary education spending in 24 states.

While the Department of Education research paper said it did not propose to identify the causes of the oversized increases in state and local spending on corrections, it noted that prison populations spiked sharply around 1980, and that aging prison populations have significantly increased healthcare costs for correctional facilities.

The study also noted linkages between educational attainments and lower crime rates. For instance, it cited Bureau of Justice Statistics data showing about two-thirds of inmates in state prisons have not finished high school, and research estimates that a 10% increase in high-school graduation rates could bring a 9% reduction in arrest rates. It further noted research had found that young black males lacking a high school diploma or the equivalent are more likely to be incarcerated than employed.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).