Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Study: Prison Spending Grew at Three Times the Rate of Education Spending over Last Three Decades

by Lonnie Burton

A July 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education found that spending on prisons and jails nationwide outpaced what public officials spent on education at a rate of more than three-to-one. The study covered a 33-year period – from 1979 to 2012 – which saw the nation’s prison population swell far beyond capacity amid harsh sentencing laws.

During that time period, according to the report, state and local spending on schools grew to $534 billion from $258 billion, or an increase of 107 percent. Meanwhile, spending on corrections grew by a whopping 324 percent, up from $17 billion in 1979 to an estimated $71 billion in 2012.

Currently, the United States – which includes federal, state and local jurisdictions – spends about $80 billion per year on its corrections system – though some estimates which include collateral costs are significantly higher. [See p. 57].

The Department of Education study found that the population of prisoners held in state and local facilities grew to nearly 2.1 million in 2012, compared to just over 450,000 in 1979. State and local spending on postsecondary education, on the other hand, has remained flat since 1990 when adjusted for inflation, while average state and local per capita spending on corrections rose by 44 percent over the same time frame.

The growth in the U.S. prison population outpaced the increase in the general population by a factor of seven, the study said. The widespread adoption of mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing, three-strikes and other harsh sentencing laws largely accounted for the monumental increase in the prison and jail population.

Twelve states – including Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi and Arizona – increased their corrections spending by more than 300 percent over their spending on pre-K to grade 12 education budgets.

Just two states, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, had prison spending increases that did not outpace education spending, even after accounting for changes in population. The report did not evaluate different state policies and sentencing laws that may have accounted for such disparities, stated then-U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” he said. “We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

In a conference call, King added the report should spur lawmakers to reevaluate their spending policies to channel more money away from mass incarceration and into education. For example, he noted that a mere 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would result in a nine percent decline in arrest rates.

“One in three Americans of working age have a criminal record,” said then-White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett during the same conference call. “That creates an often insurmountable barrier to successful reentry.”

A CNN survey of data from 40 states found they all spent more per year to incarcerate a prisoner than to educate a pre-K to 12th grade student, usually by a wide margin. 

Sources:;; Washington Post; “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education,” U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Study Service (July 2016) 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login