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Spending on Prisons Surpasses Higher Education

Editors Note:
It’s downright embarrassing. Massachusetts has traditionally been a state that respects higher education. But misplaced priorities on Beacon Hill have taken their toll. Crime has taken root in distressed communities and budget cuts have eroded state support for education. Now the state is spending more on prisons than on higher education. The following article from State House News Service summarizes a recent report from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 24, 2003…..For the first time in decades, state government this fiscal year will spend more on prisons and jails than on public higher education, according to a Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation bulletin released Monday morning.

The report documents how increases in public higher education spending have been wiped out by two rounds of steep cuts – $222 million, or 29 percent, in fiscal years 1988 through 1992, and $293 million, or 27 percent, between fiscal years 2001 and 2004.

Spending on public higher education, the main option to more expensive private colleges and universities, accounted for 6.5 percent of state spending in 1988. This year, at $816 million, it accounts for 3.5 percent.

Taxpayers will shell out $830 million to pay for prisons and jails this fiscal year.

Spending on corrections surged by an average annual rate of 8.4 percent between fiscal years 1988 and 2001, according to the bulletin. Since 2001, when the latest fiscal crisis hit state government, the rate of growth has slowed to an average of 1.3 percent per year.

The smaller increases correspond with a 10 percent increase in prison overcrowding. MTF says the state’s prisons and jails were operating at138 percent of capacity in the first quarter of 2003, or only “moderately less” than 1986’s peak overcapacity rate of 157 percent.

The surge in spending on prisons and jails is a nationwide trend, and states strapped for cash are beginning to more seriously question “tough on crime” policies such as lengthy mandatory minimum sentencing, according to the report.

States are also increasingly restoring early parole and treatment plans for some drug offenders.

Edward Flynn, public safety secretary under Gov. Mitt Romney, recently signaled the administration’s intent to break from the correctional approaches of the past, though Romney aides insist he is not giving up on being tough on criminals.

The foundation offered lawmakers a few suggestions:

Adopt sentencing guidelines to address the “hodgepodge” of disparate statutes and sentences;

Extend parole eligibility to non-violent offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences;
Control costs by considering community-based programs for first-time offenders and revisiting classification guidelines to ensure high-security facilities are reserved for the most violent.

Revisit the state’s decision this year to close five minimum-security facilities with 1,300 beds and eliminate some inmate education programs. The report says the decision increased costs at higher security facilities and wiping out education programs undermines the goal of reducing recidivism.


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