A year in jail, $225,000; a year in school, $8,000

The library came up with that book I told you about last June, Nell Bernstein’s Burning Down the House, about the US’s horrendous and out of step with other developed countries way of dealing with juvenile offenders by throwing them in jail for years. I’ll share some items.

On average, we spend $88,000 per year to incarcerate a young person in a state facility – more than eight times the $10, 652 we invest in her education. In many states, this gap is even wider. In California, for example, the cost of a year in a youth prison reached a high of $225,000, while education spending dipped to less than $8,000. [p 6]

And what’s the payoff? Children turned into repeat criminals. Locking children up does nothing to rehabilitate them and does much to wreck them.

…for as long as we have locked children away in the name of rehabilitating them, the evidence has mounted that this approach is a failure on all fronts. Sky-high recidivism rates… – higher than 80 percent in some states – indicate that whatever is taking place inside our juvenile correctional facilities, no one is actually being “corrected.” [p 7]

It doesn’t just fail to correct, it succeeds in criminalizing.

In fact, multiple studies have shown that putting youth behind bars not only fails to enhance public safety, it does just the opposite, driving low-level delinquents deeper into criminality and increasing the likelihood that they will wind up behind bars again and again. [p 7]

What does work, Bernstein is convinced, is a consistent relationship with at least one trusted adult. Prison isn’t the place to find that.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I live in California. I think a big reason for our large disparity lies in how these two issues have been funded, as well as how they have been sold to the voters:
    Schools are almost entirely funded by property taxes. Due to our (usually) hot real estate market, someone who purchases a house and lives in it for several years can find their property taxes rising a lot while their mortgage payments are generally unchanged from the date of purchase. Plus, property taxes are billed once a year, rather than monthly, so they seem very high, even though in fact they may not have risen as much as other things. Because of this, Proposition 13 was passed, which put a lid on property tax increases due to rising values, AND made it much harder to raise new taxes. So schools have been squeezed for nearly 40 years.
    New prisons, OTOH, are sold to the voters as a public safety necessity, and are usually funded with bonds paid from the General Fund, so they seem “free” to the voters.

  2. says

    Looking at 2010 figures, I found that in California, $47,2 billion was spent on education @ $8,452 per ADA. This compares to a spend of $7.9 billion for prisons (direct and indirect costs) @ $47,421 per inmate.

    Although much less is spent per year of education on each individual, the school population is still vastly larger than the prison poulation (not that the Republicans are not working to change this). At six times the total cost compared to prisons, obviously the whole funding regime has to be quite different. Perhaps, as moarscienceplz suggests the current arrangement nevertheless needs adjusting. Perhaps the total prison bill can be met by property taxes and the schools through a combination of sources. At least both will then appear on the political radar. Schools clearly supply more bang for your buck.

    The Cost Of Prisons | California: Link to PDF.
    Current Expense of Education (California Dep. of Education): Spreadsheets off this page.

    ADA = Average Daily Attendance, allows for taking into consideration schooling that is offered but not taken up. Non-attendance will tend to push up costs.

  3. yahweh says

    There’s more behind this than immediate funding methods as the same happens in the UK and almost certainly elsewhere (sorry I don’t have a link to UK expenditure but it is regularly compared to the most expensive private schools).

    I think funding reflects cultural priorities. Punishing children for being bad has always been a a duty enthusiastically exercised. Providing a safe upbringing and a good education is still seen by many as being a bit soft – they may not deserve it.

    BTW It’s amusing to see a nod towards sex equality here (“…the $10, 652 we invest in her education”) when prison populations are so overwhelmingly male.

    Here’s an idea: outsource provision to the Christian Brothers! They can punish children much cheaper.

  4. karmacat says

    It would be a step in the right direction if they reversed the privitization of prisons. Private companies who run prisons obviously want recidivism to help their bottom line

  5. Crimson Clupeidae says

    “It doesn’t just fail to correct, it succeeds in criminalizing.”
    That’s a feature, not a bug. Privatized prison is big business$$$$.

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