Home Budgets States Can Save Money Prioritizing Education Over Incarceration

States Can Save Money Prioritizing Education Over Incarceration


By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University

“What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?” —Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

As a criminal justice professor with a background in prison administration, I am regularly assigned to teach one or more courses in corrections. One issue that I consistently address in my lectures is the disparity in correctional expenditures in relation to educational expenditures.

Pennsylvania is a prime example of a state in which more money is earmarked for corrections while funds for education are cut:

  • In the 2011-2012 state budget, Pennsylvania cut $1.1 billion from education spending.
  • In the 2013-2014 school year, facing a $304 million budget shortfall, the Philadelphia school district closed 23 schools and fired thousands of teachers, aides, and counselors in the remaining schools.
  • 75 percent of Pennsylvania schools will reduce instructional programming as a result of budget cuts.
  • Pennsylvania spends twice as much on prisons as it does on higher education.
  • Many studies report that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of prisoners did not complete high school.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) requested more than $2 billion in funding for fiscal year 2014-2015, which was a $77 million increase from former Governor Tom Corbett’s 2013-2014 budget. The reality is that incarceration is expensive. There is no denying that fact. This is partially due to an increase in inmates who require mental health and other related services to assist them in reintegrating from prison back into the community. Nearly one-fourth of inmates need mental health treatment, which requires the expense of building programs and properly training staff.

What Is the True Cost of Incarceration?
prisoner handThe overall costs for corrections services must also account for salary and benefit increases for the more than 15,000 Pennsylvania prison employees. However, according to the Vera Institute of Justice, determining the total cost of state prisons requires accounting for expenditures in all areas of government that support the prison system—not just those within the corrections budget. The additional costs passed on to taxpayers can include expenses that are centralized for administrative purposes (such as employee benefits and capital costs) and services for inmates funded through other agencies.

Prison costs outside the Pennsylvania DOC’s budget include the following:

  • Underfunded pension contributions
  • Underfunded retiree health care contributions
  • Statewide administrative costs
  • Increased inmate health care costs
  • Increased expenditures in inmate education and training
  • Capital costs

Efforts to Reduce Prison Costs
Former Governor Tom Corbett worked diligently to keep Pennsylvania’s prison population from rising further by introducing prison-reform legislation, expanding parole supervision, and introducing other noteworthy initiatives to improve overall operational efficiency. The “Justice Reinvestment” prison reform package of 2012 included several measures intended to keep low-level offenders out of prison by diverting non-violent offenders and parole violators into court programs, instead of imposing mandatory minimum sentences.

According to The Council of State Governments Justice Center, justice reinvestment is a data-driven approach to improve public safety, reduce corrections and related criminal justice spending, and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease crime and reduce recidivism. With this move, the Pennsylvania DOC expected to save nearly $140 million over five years. This was a logical initiative since every one dollar spent on treatment saves six dollars in incarceration.

However, in 2013, Pennsylvania’s prison population unexpectedly rose. This increase can largely be attributed to the fact that county judges simply sentenced more people to prison in 2013 than expected. In total, commitments rose by roughly 7 percent from 2012 figures. To further compound matters, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed nearly two dozen bills since 2012 to either extend sentences or create new offenses, diminishing the intended impact of the initial the justice reinvestment package and countering all efforts to gain some control over rising prison costs. If the current trend continues, Pennsylvania anticipates that it would need to build a new facility every 18 months.

How to Curb Incarceration through Education
According to a Philadelphia-based organization, Books Through Bars, the United States is ranked 21st in educational attainment globally, but number one in incarceration. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. While spending on incarceration continues to increase, funding for education at every level—from Head Start to colleges and universities—continues to be cut each year. States now spend four times more per capita to incarcerate than to educate. Change must occur. Consider one simple statistic: Nationally, about one in 10 young male high school dropouts is imprisoned, compared to 1 in 35 young male high school graduates. If we started spending more to educate people, we might just have fewer people to incarcerate.

Did you like this article? Here are other corrections-related articles written by Professor Pittaro:

AMU Criminal Justice Professor Michael PittaroAbout the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 26-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of setting. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 12 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.


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  1. Good article. Education is, in my view, the best evidence based programming Correctional facilities can provide. Educational after care is in place through higher educational opportunities, prospective employers like education, families of convicted felons see educational achievement as a real sign of change and the inmates attain a goal that many thought unattainable. What’s not to like.

  2. As an expert in inmates’ education in Uganda Prisons Service- East Africa, I have learnt that accessing education to inmates is the most viable way of rehabilitating them. And states should resort to incarceration as the last resort. Other Alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms should be enlisted in the criminal justice system, well knowing that many a time, crime is a response to the state’s failure to equitably distribute wealth and benefits to its citizens.

    1. Hi Biryomumaisho –

      I completely agree that incarceration should be the last resort and like you, I am a proponent of alternative sanctions that cost far less, yet can be just as effective, and many do promote or emphasize the benefits of rehabilitation. Thanks! Mike

  3. The problem with PA’s prison system is very close to what is happened in Mi. I see a lot of uneducated 18 to 22 year old young men coming to prison. These inmates, for the most part, don’t care about school. They want to get involved in gangs,they want to make money. These young men want respect, yet they don’t know how to give it. It used to be when a man came to prison one off the “Old Heads”(someone who has been locked up a long time) would get with him and tell him what he should and shouldn’t do. The new wave doesn’t care about any advice. I guess what I’m trying to say is, How can we get education to compete with the power felt in gangs, the easy money of selling drugs,stealing what you want instead of buying it? An education is not needed for these thing.

    1. Hey Dale – Thanks for responding! I used PA as an example only because it’s where I reside with my family and where I worked and received my education. Since I worked in a prison, I completely agree with your statement that many don’t care for school and that’s because the gang life has been glorified and provides quick and easy money, street status, and a feared reputation. This is undoubtedly a complex issue and education is only one piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Community revitalization is a huge component because a child’s social environment can be incredibly powerful in shaping his/her beliefs, values, and overall view of life. – Mike


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