Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a frequent contributor to The Root.
As federal, state and local governments across the nation slash their budgets to close looming shortfalls, there is one clear winner in the budget battles: correctional systems, which cost the nation nearly $70 billion annually. During the last two decades, funding for prisons eclipsed spending for higher education sixfold.
The NAACP is looking to reverse this trend with their new report, "Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate," a 57-page examination of how our nation invests more in the prison system than in the education of our youth. This prioritization, kicked into hyperdrive during the last two decades, has led to a disturbing trend: Many of the neighborhoods that have the lowest rates of education have the highest rates of incarceration, with generations entering the same failing school systems before exiting to the criminal-justice system.
During Thursday's press conference, NAACP President Ben Jealous advocated for "better, cheaper, safer" alternatives to the current system. The report, released under NAACP's "Smart and Safe" campaign, hopes to illuminate how society is overinvesting in prisons as a way to solve social problems — which unfortunately fails to break the cycles of drug addiction, domestic violence and poverty that plague so many of our communities. "Misplaced Priorities" explains:
Largely as a result of the War on Drugs — which includes police stops, arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences — more than half of all prison and jail inmates — including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates — are now those with mental health or drug problems.
During the Q&A session at the press conference, Laura Murphy of the ACLU pointed out that dollar for dollar, drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for rehabilitating those suffering from drug addiction. While some states have begun shifting resources from building more prisons to substance-abuse programs, most states have not critically analyzed the role the prison system plays in exacerbating social ills.
What's noteworthy about this effort is that for once, the newly minted "smart on crime" reforms are being embraced by people on both sides of the aisle. The NAACP asked prominent conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, to help them champion their "smart on crime" reforms. Norquist said that there needs to be more focus on whether criminal-justice funding is used wisely. At one point, Norquist became emphatic about holding the criminal-justice system accountable, noting, "Conservatives cannot give a blank check to the prison system!" While Norquist's comments downplayed the role of prevention and social reforms, even conservative leaders agree with progressives that the amount of funding flowing toward the prison system is excessive.
This is refreshing, particularly considering that conservatives were instrumental in creating the war on drugs. The term, first used by Richard Nixon in the 1970s, described an offensive toward stemming the trade of illegal drugs in America, which eventually extended to both domestic and international initiatives.
In 1988 President George H.W. Bush created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was elevated to the Cabinet level during the Clinton administration. The policies championed by ONDCP actually opened the floodgates for nonviolent offenders to become institutionalized, a trend that resulted in the war on drugs taking an outsize toll on black and Latino communities, as well as impoverished communities around the nation. "Misplaced Priorities" reveals:
While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts. [...]
According to "Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population," if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50 percent.
There are a variety of reasons for racial disparities in the prison system — the NAACP cites disparate sentencing for crack- and powder-cocaine offenses and a greater focus of public spending on imprisonment than on subsidizing drug-addiction treatment. "Misplaced Priorities" also notes that low-income whites are starting to suffer also from the rise of incarceration culture; it is estimated that one in 10 low-income white males will also be incarcerated, some because of the rise of methamphetamine.
But would reducing the number of people in the corrections system have an adverse effect on falling crime rates? All the experts polled at the press conference said no — their belief is that by shifting the prison system's focus, we can have a more efficient system that keeps Americans safe without undermining entire communities.
Some of the most stirring remarks came from Mike Jimenez, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Jimenez focused on the emotional and community toll that American policies toward incarceration take on fragile communities. After explaining that the removal of parents and authority figures from households forces many children into the foster system (which could lead to a lifetime of believing that institutionalization is normal), Jimenez dropped a fact bomb: "Incarceration is the most expensive way to deal with drug and addiction issues, at $50,000 per person per year."
Jimenez, a former corrections officer, also noted that incarceration rates continue to rise because America has been unwilling to invest money in its citizens, preferring to house people away from society.
And exactly how much are we talking here? Spending on prisons varies from state to state. In Indiana, the NAACP uncovered:
[F]ive high-incarceration zip codes add up to more than 56 percent of prison expenditures ($82 million) for the city. Incarceration costs for two zip codes alone in Indianapolis each amount to more than $20 million; for one, taxpayers are spending $27 million and for the other $25 million.
With statistics like this playing out all over the nation, it's little wonder that the NAACP has chosen to tackle the criminal-justice system as part of its 21st-century battle for equality.