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A sound investment for California taxpayers: prison or college?

California has long been recognized among the nation for its investment in and the priority it has assigned to providing its citizens with affordable access to higher education. However, as a result of the race to incarcerate over the past three decades, California has considerably expanded the budget allocation for corrections while simultaneously cutting the funds spent on higher education. In comparison to other states, California has the largest population, the most students in college, and also the largest prison population. It is no secret that the state is in a current economic crisis and with several social services on the chopping block, taxpayers should be asking the question, "Which is a more economically sound investment, prison or college?" 

California's Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) and public universities have two qualities in common; both battle for an allocation of the state's budget and both struggle to house the same population, young people. This might lead you to ask, "How do these two compare in costs to the taxpayer?" 

Currently, the FY 2011-2012 budget for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is $10 billion, with $226 million of those funds being allocated to DJF. Moreover, the annual cost to taxpayers is approximately $190,000 per youth to confine the 985 remaining incarcerated youth population.  

Conversely, the FY 2011-2012 budget for California Higher Education is approximately $11 billion, which includes the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), and the California Community Colleges (CCC). The total amount allocated in the budget serves a population of approximately 3.2 million students at both the university and community college level. The average annual tuition cost for a CSU student is $6,519, the average cost to attend a UC is $13,200  per year, and the combined average is approximately $9,860 per year.

While it is true the budgets for CDCR and higher education are almost equivalent, both foster very different outcomes. For example, aside from being extremely costly, the DJF system is inefficient with an extremely high recidivism rate of 80%, and is currently in litigation for conditions which were deemed unconstitutional. On the other hand, education increases public safety and has been empirically proven as an effective form of crime prevention. To put this in perspective, take Minnesota for example, which has regularly enjoyed a low incarceration rate, spends only $0.17 on corrections for every dollar they spend on education.

California's spending trend over the last decade has been to cut the funding allocated to higher education while increasing the funding of corrections. This fact by itself might incite philosophical questions like, "Where do our priorities and values as a society lie when we spend more on imprisoning our population than we do on educating them?" 

Pondering philosophical questions such as this is useful when examining the sociology of punishment, but unnecessary when you apply a cost-benefit analysis to the amount of dollars spent and the outcomes of the investments. The calculations are simple; it is not economically efficient to continue to fund the revolving door of a youth correctional system like DJF that serves only a population of 985 at the high cost of $190,000 per inmate. The same monies could be used to fund the costs of higher education, which currently serves a population of 3.2 million students and is anticipated to continue to grow even larger. Given what we know about the ineffectiveness of the DJF, and the many benefits of higher education not only to the individual but also society at large, again ask yourselves "How should our tax dollars best be spent?"

The cost to confine one youth per year in DJF could instead be used to pay the yearly college tuition for approximately 19 young people. You do the math.
 
~ Amanda L. Gullings
CJCJ Communications and Policy Intern

Keywords: DJF/DJJ, fiscal policy, state policy

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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