States Spend Almost Four Times More Per Capita on Incarcerating Prisoners Than Educating Students, Studies Say

An examination of state budgets has revealed that most states, despite spending more money overall on education, are spending three to four times more per capita incarcerating prisoners than they are educating students.

According to research gathered from the Department of Justice, Georgia lawmakers, for example, dole out almost $18,000 a year to house one inmate in a state prison. But the National Education Association says the state spends about one-third of that to put a child through the public education system.

And other states have larger discrepancies.

In analyzing two separate reports from the Department of Justice and the National Education Association conducted over similar periods, research shows California spends about $47,000 per inmate while only spending about $9,000 for every student enrolled. New York State spends about $56,000 per inmate and approximately $16,000 for every student in the school system. Michigan pays about $34,000 for every prisoner and about $11,000 for a student.

“Education must compete with other state agencies and that would be child welfare agencies and prison funding,” said Tim Callahan, the spokesperson for PAGE, Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Callahan say it would be more cost effective for states to focus on public education, especially pre-K.

“The message is very clear, if we don’t have well-educated students who later in life may turn to crime, they’ll end up costing us twice as much as it would to educate a student,” Callahan said. “The more money and the more effort and the more success we can have for young people in pre-kindergarten, in the earliest grade, the better we are going to be.”

State lawmakers in Georgia say education is an area in the budget they’re always looking to improve. “You know, as well as I do, that if a child today does not have at least a high school education, they’re doomed to failure,” said Georgia State Representative Brooks Coleman, the chairman of the House Committee for Education.

He went on to say about 30% of Georgia high school students are dropping out. “Unfortunately, the pie, the state revenue -- and not only in Georgia but across the nation -- has been shrinking the last several years," Callahan said. “So the battle for those funds is even more serious than it was before.”

That being said, law enforcement officials say prison costs are necessary. You can’t have one but not the other.

“I think you could spend an unlimited amount of money on education and it will never eliminate crime,” said District Attorney Patrick H. Head.

“We have crime committed by people that have no respect for human life; we have crimes committed by people who have no respect for property.” He went on to say, "[criminals] will use that education and they will use that intellect in order to commit their crimes.”

The answer to this nationwide issue depends on who you ask. Some law enforcement experts say states could cut down on prison luxuries, such as recreation and air conditioning, while depending more on alternative correction programs for minor offenders.