Increasing focus on schools decreases use of prisons

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To paraphrase the catchphrase from David Simon’s gritty portrayal of a year-in-the-life of a Baltimore detective squad: “The perpetrator is almost always poorly educated.”

Consider for just a moment this tidbit from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics: “About 41% of inmates in the Nation’s State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997 and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent.”

Compare that to the approximately 18% of the general population that does not graduate from High School and it suggests a strong correlation between the abandonment of educational pursuits and the commission of crimes punishable by incarceration. Only about one-third of those serving time behind bars obtain high school diplomas while imprisoned.

Studies also indicate a strong correlation between low educational attainment and criminal recidivism. This is a by-product of failing to meet the needs of the 1-in-5 socio-economically disadvantaged children that attend our public schools.

California spent $62,000 per prison inmate last year, no doubt much of the spending budgeted for remediation of reading and math skills. How many potential inmates might avoid poor life choices if spending in the public schools exceeded, by just a little, the current $9,600 per pupil on the left coast?

Nationally, we average about $5.00 per inmate for every $1.00 spent on children in school. How has our nation become so penny wise about education and pound foolish about rehabilitation?

Conservatives and Liberals need to unite around the cause of Public Education as the foundation of a sane and rational society. Investing in the welfare of all children and prioritizing education spending would likely decrease expenditures for prisons in the long run.

Might it be more cost effective if we, together, closed the valves in the schools-to-prison pipeline by hiring teachers instead of turnkeys? Our nation seems, instead, to have forsaken the wisdom of Frederick Douglass who wrote a century and half ago, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Further Reading…

[This Commentary originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on October 2, 2014.]

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