Timberlake: Budget imbalance between prisons, education hurts all Americans


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The cost of keeping a inmate in prison is much more than the cost of sending a student to college.

Ian Timberlake

What would you say if I told you that it costs more per year to house a single inmate in prison than it does to send a young adult off to university? What if I then asked how you felt after realizing that more of your tax dollars go to a criminal than it will to your neighbor’s recent high school graduate?

It’s an unnerving feeling to witness that both are true on the state and federal level. When you realize just how large the gap is in my first question, it’s no wonder we have a rising prison population and failing school system.

According to the ISU Office of Student Financial Aid, in the 2011-12 school year, the average resident cost was $16,152 for tuition, room and board, books and supplies. The average cost across the nation varies but is similar to Iowa State’s numbers. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports roughly $25,000 to 30,000 is spent annually per inmate, and that number continues to grow. Some states reach heights of $45,000 per jail bed, all paid for by the taxpayers.

Incarceration is only a Band-Aid to the problem of crime. The prison system takes criminals and separates them from society and arguably reforms them, though most inmates will make at least one return trip to prison once freed. Band-Aids don’t solve problems. An example would be that of illicit drugs. Banning drugs does not answer the question as to why people began doing drugs in the first place.

Currently, as of May 26 this year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports a total federal prison population of over 217,000 people, while 48.2 percent of those — 94,000 people — are in for nonviolent, drug-related charges, almost exclusively on possession. What if instead of a Band-Aid, we attacked the high prison population and poor education problem by finding the source? I think we can all agree that the way to improve education is to improve the system itself. But why can’t the same thing be said about crime, drug use, obesity and so on?

The intelligent way to solve crime would be to ask why the crime was committed in the first place, at its seed. I wholly believe that nearly all of our problems can be solved through education. The mind is our tool. We know that areas of high poverty also have higher crime rates. We also know that the more educated someone is, the less likely he/she will be impoverished. The better we educate someone, therefore, the less likely it will be for a crime to be committed.

The simplest and best long-term solution would be to pardon nearly half of our prison population — the 48.2 percent of nonviolent drug users. These offenders are victimless criminals. If they want to put chemicals in their body, let that be their choice. I think the War on Drugs has shown that that choice will always remain. Take all the money we used to keep those people cyclically locked up and apply it to our education system. How much good do you think this would do for us? I haven’t even brought up allocating more money from the national budget towards education.

There won’t be an immediately noticeable resolution, but the importance of doing this is paramount. Job security, a healthy personal life and education are almost required to keep citizens from getting into trouble. Once money is allocated into education, job security will improve, and crime can only decrease. There is still something to be said about a healthy personal life. Drug use will still exist, but intelligent citizens make generally more intelligent decisions, or rather, decisions that aren’t so self deprecating or illogical. So the problem would fix itself in due process.

Not only would crime rates fall, but education would improve without any additional cost to the taxpayer. And the benefits don’t just end there. Improved education would improve health. The obesity epidemic could steadily drop. Overall health would improve, the cost of health care would drop, and lives would be lengthened. People would make smarter monetary decision-making, thus the market would be more competitive. Not to mention a whole slew of other things, even things we could never foresee. All from reallocating some of our prison expenditure towards education.

Every inmate we keep in prison keeps a child (in some states three) from having the potential to go off to college or receive an education that would free them from a life of crime, bad health and low income, among other things. Effectively, we would grow two plants with one seed.