Education vs. Incarceration: An American Dilemma

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Over the last year and most recently, I have witnessed the great concerns and energies placed on failing public schools in America. Experts from across the country are sharing their insights and providing much needed dialogue.
However, there is an important piece of the conversation that’s being sugar coated now and in the past by many education, political and community leaders, especially since the war on drugs started in 1969.
Education vs. Incarceration and cost.
A study released by The Pew Center, which look at all aspects of corrections including offenders on parole and probation, found Arizona spent 9.5 percent of its general fund on corrections in fiscal year 2008. The money spent on corrections amounted to $951 million. The states that lead Arizona are Michigan, 22 percent; Oregon, 10.6 percent; and Florida, 10 percent.

Angered and frustrated by cuts in funding for Florida public school education parents across South Florida took their protests to the streets, and to the internet, to have their voices heard. The Miami-Dade school district had to cut about $300-million from their $5.5 billion yearly budget. District officials expect to cut $80-million more by the stated school year. In Broward County, the cuts totaled $150 million.

Black Male in PrisonsThe side effects to incarceration over education: In the United States, youth of color caught in the crossfire of the war on drugs are frequently subject to persecution, incarcerated and denied access to education opportunities. The irony is that the war on drugs is often defended as a necessary policy to protect the nation’s young people. In reality, rather than protecting youth, the drug war has resulted in the institutionalized persecution of Black, Latino and Native American young people. While more and more young men and women of color are being ushered into the criminal justice system under the guise of fighting drugs, resources for educating youth are diminishing and barriers to education restrict students with drug convictions from receiving higher education.

Youth of color bear the brunt of harmful drug policies, from arrest to prosecution to detention in correctional facilities. Some states in the U.S. now have the distinction of sending more Black and Latino young people to prison every year than graduate from state university programs. This legacy of discrimination in U.S. drug policy amplifies the burgeoning gap in opportunities available to White youth and youth of color. In order to correct this discrepancy, policies must be enacted that make education a priority over incarceration. There must be an end to zero tolerance and drug laws whose effect is to criminalize youth of color, racially discriminatory policing practices and barriers to education for youth who have been directed into the criminal justice system and away from school.

Many School Districts had to take a hard looks at trimming its 2010-11 budgets in the wake of states budget forecast. It appears that legislators are pulling back on education funding and refusing to put emphasis on education reform as an urgent priority. These types of budget forecasts speak to fundamentally flawed views regarding the importance of improving the nation’s education system.

Education not incarceration is needed as many across the U.S. protest against education cuts. We must examined the interconnection between public education and the growing prison-industrial complex as a civil and human rights issue. Furthermore, a national call to action is urgently needed on prison reform, in conjunction with education reform and sustained, not just an exchange of ideas during this economic crisis and political conversation.

“At no time do we condone wrongness on either side of the wall”

Richard P. Burton, Sr., Director