Prison Costs More Than Higher Ed

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(Courtesy of JSOnline)

It costs more than $103,000 a year to house a 15-year-old at a Wisconsin juvenile justice facility.

It costs up to $14,300 a year to educate the same teenager at Milwaukee Public Schools.

While it costs about $33,500 a year to house an adult at Waupun Correctional Institution, it costs about $17,000 a year – with room and board – for an in-state student to attend a year of undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A few weeks ago, I told you that some college students in the state were graduating with student loan debt upward of $90,000.

Higher education is too costly, creating a greater gap between the haves and have-nots. Prison and juvenile detention costs are unsustainable. We need to rethink how we house inmates because it is fiscally irresponsible for communities to pay the equivalent of the cost of a four-year Ivy League education to house a teenage offender for a year.

It is a lot less expensive to invest in young people on the front end before they get entangled in the criminal justice system and end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Successful regions are built on an educated workforce. The Milwaukee area will not grow if we don’t have a talented and educated workforce in place.

While higher education costs rose 21% from 1987 to 2007, correctional spending during the time period skyrocketed 126%.

“This doesn’t make any sense, but we’ve known this for a long time,” Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said. “If we change the prison model, we can redirect money back into the communities with the most needs,” he said.

Wisconsin is not unique. The United States as a whole has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and it ranks sixth in college degrees.

There is a strong correlation between education and prison. One in 10 boys who drop out of high school are either in jail or in a state juvenile center. For black boys, that number is one in four. A high school graduate’s chances of ending up in jail is one in 35, according to a study by Northeastern University.

Curbing the dropout rate is essential because we can no longer afford the alternative.

The state says it costs $284 a day to house kids in juvenile facilities; much of that cost comes from counseling, education and health care, including mental health care, needs. The average length of stay is six to nine months, but some kids remain detained a year or longer.

If a child is kept on an 18-month sentence in the state juvenile detention center, it will cost $155,348, or the cost of a four-year degree at Harvard University.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Housing 50 kids in a state juvenile facility for a year is equivalent of paying for: 20 school nurses and 35 art, music and gym teachers.

And don’t think I’m soft on crime. Violent youths and adults should be locked away for a very long time. But there are a large number of incarcerated, nonviolent offenders who are driving up prison costs.

“These are the people who can be rehabilitated, and doing so would save millions over the long run,” Chisholm said.

This nation can no longer afford the “lock them up and throw away the key” approach, especially when it comes to those who can be saved. The state needs to make a huge investment in reformed justice, which would mean coming up with different strategies for steering youths away from crime.

Chisholm said of the $1.3 billion spent on state corrections every year, more than $300 million can be traced right back to two aldermanic districts in Milwaukee. These districts are responsible for the most crime, most police contact, highest joblessness and highest recidivism rates.

Chisholm said with no jobs and few skilled workers in these districts, even if authorities lock up the 3,000 or so people who break the law, it would do little to change things because all the money invested in incarcerating these adults does little to help the districts.

Imagine what could happen if half of those men could be rehabilitated and the massive amount of money spent on their incarceration was instead used to improve the community by putting that money into schools, into health care or into business development and training?

Would it be hard to change a criminal mind-set that exists in some neighborhoods? Yes, but it’s worth trying because prison is not working, especially when as a nation, seven in 10 men end up back in prison within three years of getting out.

The only thing we learned from being tough on crime is that we could lock up a lot of people, said Ralph Hollmon, president and chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Urban League.

“The worst part is that when they get out, they usually end up worse than when they went in because they don’t learn any useful job skills they need to get a job, and they already have a strike against them anyway for being in prison,” Hollmon said.

Some youths in Milwaukee face incredible odds. Shouldn’t kids living in these types of environments be given a chance to succeed?

I’ve advocated for a SEED School approach for more than a year now, but some leaders have said that a boarder school approach would not work here because it costs about $35,000 a year to house these kids.

Guess what? It doesn’t cost $103,660 a year, as it would to keep them in a state juvenile detention center.

A SEED School removes a lot of the barriers that young people living in poverty face every day by taking them out of that environment and placing them in a school where they can concentrate on learning. More than 98% of the students who participate in SEED Schools go on to college.

MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton told me that students cannot be ready for life unless they are ready for college. “In too many neighborhoods, young people see a post-high school life shaped by two extremes: prison or college,” Thornton said after MPS received a $14.8 million federal grant to improve high school graduation rates.

If we really want to invest in students, we have to rethink education and how we incarcerate prisoners. The future shows that we can’t afford not to.

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