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Education over incarceration

Special to AmNews | , Jasmin K. Williams | 5/25/2011, 9:23 a.m.

"Over the past decade, New York's prison population has fallen and crime has gone down about 16 percent, while in Florida the prison population has continued to rise precipitously during that same time and crime has gone up about 16 percent. You can find experiences like that across the country that really debunk this myth that took hold in the '90s that the best way to reduce crime was to warehouse criminals and law violators, no matter how small the infraction, or how nonviolent the crime," Jealous told the Amsterdam News.

"The first goal is to shift states from failed policies that have resulted in the mass incarceration of citizens toward proven policies that tend to incarcerate less, cost less and make us safer. We call those smarter crime policies.

"The second is to send the savings to the public university system and the public education system more generally," he said.

"As you look across the country at various states over the past three to four decades, state prison systems developed these 'tough-on-crime' policies that resulted in over incarceration. You see the percentage of the state budge devoted to prisons go up and the percentage devoted to paying for public higher education go down.

"In California, where I grew up in the 1970s, the state spent 3 percent of its budget on incarceration and 11 percent on education. Last year, the state spent 11 percent on incarceration and only 7.5 percent on public higher education. That trend is repeated across the country. When Pennsylvania was faced with a budget crisis, the state took $300 million out of its public education budget and added $300 million to its budget for jails and prisons in a single budget year," said Jealous.

"Georgia has the fifth largest penal system in the country, three-quarters of whom are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders--the No. 1 source of the prison population, both in growth rate and size over the last three decades. This is why states like New York and others are shifting the priority from incarceration to treatment. South Carolina took that step last year. For example, people convicted for possessing crack are treated the same as those convicted of possessing powdered cocaine, something that the U.S. Congress hasn't even been able to do," he continued.

"This moment is exciting for a few reasons. There's a lot of financial pressure on states. Every decision is a tough one and every decision related to the criminal justice system is now getting full attention in a way that they often don't. This comes from people on both sides of the aisle as officials look for ways to creatively cut budgets and are willing to do tough things to accomplish that.

"It's also exciting because we've reached a point where we've tried so many ways to deal with the increase of drug abuse in the country and the perceived increase in crime although, in actual terms, crime has fallen in many places. It's the consensus that these things have failed. People on both sides of the aisle are now willing to look at the evidence and really embrace what works. It worked in New York. It worked in South Carolina. It worked in Virginia, where the governor actually shrank down the number of prisons and increased a portion of his budget devoted to historically Black colleges. In these times when there is so much partisanship, this is a place where bipartisanship is really possible," Jealous said.