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Original Source Link: (May no longer be active) -- | Section: Local & State

Aug. 28, 2002, 10:36AM

Bar for the course:
A new study shows state has increased spending faster on prisons than education
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Percentage increases in spending for Texas prisons has far outstripped state spending hikes for higher education since the mid-1980s, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study, by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington advocacy group, also showed Texas now has more black men in state prisons than in state colleges and universities.

Texas was not alone in seeing its spending on prisons rise along a steep curve in the past decade and a half, while money set aside for higher education rose much more slowly, according to the study.

Since 1985, the increase in money spent on prisons nationwide topped $20 billion. That is almost twice the increase in dollars spent on colleges and universities, according to the report titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms."

"This report underlines the sad reality that the nation's colleges and universities have lost budget battles to the growing prison system," said Vincent Schiraldi, president of JPI and a co-author of the study.

That premise is starkly supported by figures the group gleaned from state budgetary reports for Texas.

The study found that in 2000 there were about 66,300 African-American men in state prisons, and only 40,872 in state colleges. In the past 20 years, the rate of increase in the black male prison population as been four times higher than the increasein black male college students.

In 1986, Texas spent about $3.1 billion from its general fund on state colleges and universities. That year, $590 million was spent on corrections, or less than one dollar for every five spent on higher education, the JPI study found.

By 2000, spending on higher education grew to $4.5 billion. Meanwhile, the state's budget for prisons had risen to $2.7 billion. In that period, the amount spent on colleges and universities grew by 47 percent, compared with a 346 percent increase on corrections.

"There is no doubt that criminal justice has been the fastest growing part of the state budget, because of concerns about public safety," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, vice chairman of the criminal justice committee.

He said Texas politicians know the issue of being tough on crime resonates with voters. "We have a shortage right now of 40,000 schoolteachers, and 2,500 prison guards, and more is said about filling the guard positions," he said. "Being safe is basic."

Whitmire said he believed the Texas Legislature needed to evaluate the way it allocated dollars to criminal justice and education.

"We have to fight the crime issue by being tough and smart. No one questions that we are being tough enough. We may be coming up short on how smart we have been," he said.

A Justice Department study released Monday showed Texas had more adults in its jails and state corrections system than any other state -- 755,100. California was second with 704,900.

Most of those 755,100 were on probation or parole. But Texas had 203,000 people in state prisons or local jails.

Dianne Clements, of the Texas victim's rights group Justice For All, said spending on prisons was a sad but necessary fact of life, and cheaper than alternatives.

"Do we spend too much on prisons? Absolutely. Is it necessary? Without a doubt," she said. "We'd love to spend that money elsewhere. But as long as people continue to commit violent crimes, we have to protect people. It is a self-defense mechanism."

Clements added, "It is always cheaper to incarcerate someone than to release them, rearrest them and convict them. We're spending a lot of money on prisons, but we're saving lives and trauma."

Some key Texas legislators said the JPI study confirms their unease that the state government is focusing too much on locking people up, compared to investing in programs to keep people from a life of crime.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said the statistics used by the JPI "sound like they are in the ballpark."

Ellis, who serves on the jurisprudence committee, said, "I think society is often better served if we do put more resources and emphasis on the problems that lead to a life of crime, rather than on what happens to people after they commit crimes," he said.

"We might be better off spending money on drug treatment programs and education on the front end than on prison beds on the other end."

Also, Ellis said he advocated reversing what has been a decline in the number of drug treatment slots inside Texas prisons.

Experts said the prison spending boom in Texas is in part the legacy of a 30 year-old lawsuit claiming inhumane conditions in a state penitentiary.

That landmark lawsuit, filed by David Ruiz in June, 1972, led to the state corrections system being overseen by U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice from 1974 until this July.

It also led to billions of dollars in expenditures to improve the state prison system, after protracted legal wrangling between the judge and state legislators.

Raymond Teske, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said a few other factors have skewed the relationship between spending on colleges and spending on prisons.

"One factor has been the shift in Texas to having local universities pick up more of their own costs through fees and tuitions, rather than funded by the state government directly," he said.

He added that Texas had to go on a prison building binge to absorb about 30,000 inmates who, through the late 1980s, were being held in county jails because there was no space in state penitentiaries.

Finally, Texas in the 1990s moved to decentralize its prison system from a corridor running from roughly Houston to Corpus Christi, Teske said.

Whitmire, however, said the JPI study pointed out a significant trend.

"Most members of the Legislature say they are pro-education, but what they put in their campaign brochures and cite in their rhetoric is that they are tough on crime," he said. "We have to see the relationship between crime and education and find the right balance."


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