Bound up in the school-to-prison pipeline

Merdies Hayes | 4/25/2013, 4:37 p.m.
California budget in a state of lockdown

California’s balance sheet is mired in an unusual dilemma: while the criminal justice portion of the state budget has shot up, the higher education portion has shot down.

During recessions, higher education budgets typically experience significant state funding cuts (money for proposed construction projects, campus refurbishment, scholarships/grants) but the corrections budget remains about the same.

Californians have witnessed since 1980 the corrections portion of the general fund grow steadily from 2.9 percent to 9.7 percent, while the higher education portion has dropped from 15.7 percent to 10.3 percent. This has resulted in more funding for new prisons, guards and the requisite bureaucracy, thereby leading to an ever-growing criminal justice payroll.

Nationwide, crime rates have been falling for more than a decade (due partly to better interdepartmental communication between the various auspices of law enforcement), but there has been a 33 percent increase in the number of inmates. There are about 2 million people incarcerated in the United States—the highest in the industrialized world—and approximately 10.4 percent of African American males between the ages of 25 and 29 years are behind bars. This compares with 2.4 percent of Latino males and 1.2 percent of White males.

Parolees and those on probation often use the term “system” in reference to a frustrating, debilitative cycle of contact with the justice system.

A criminal record can result in a first-time offender being ordered to pay mandatory fees when they are referred to drug court or to a half-way house. The cost of utilities/services (lights, gas, water) are charged to the offender, all which result in months or even of years of monetary restitution.

Prior to the passage of Prop. 98 last year, backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s budget for higher education was regularly reduced to make way for a perceived increase in inmates because of the on-going Three Strikes policy, illegal immigration, and the economic downturn; the latter, some criminologists suggest, can lead to more petty theft, more property crimes and increased juvenile delinquency because of cutbacks in after-school programs.

Once receiving five times more funding than corrections, higher education and corrections in California are now about even—$1.3 billion for prisons, $1.4 billion for colleges.

Corrections personnel in California often earn much more than a college professor or a secondary school teacher. In 1980, an average California prison guard earned $25,858 a year, while a California State University faculty member earned $29,015. In 2006, the average prison guard salary had jumped to $94,518 while the typical professor made $70,615. Recent pension-reform efforts nationwide have reviewed such disparities of state prison worker salaries against other state workers, with many such pension plans being reduced for new prison guards.

“Over the past 30 years, the state has dropped the ball when it comes to funding higher education,” said Mike Polyakov, a research director with California Common Sense which in September 2012 released a comparative analysis of, essentially, jail versus education. “In light of its diminished support for higher education, we cannot ignore the state prison system’s rapid expansion during the same period, because the two systems compete for state money from the general fund.”