Students Before Prisoners

| Opinion | June 14, 2018

By Julianna Lozada

South African President and activist Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” If this is true, why does postsecondary education fall short in state spending, and why are prisons funded more?

In a state that claims to be the progressive model for the rest of the nation, it falls nearly dead last (#46) in public university funding, taking up five percent of California’s general funds. Meanwhile, 12 percent of California’s budget goes to prisons, making our state #1 in prisoner funding.

What does more funding for public universities mean? This March, representatives from The California Faculty Association asked for full investment in public universities in response to the decline in funding. Jane Conoley, President of CSU Long Beach, stated, “[increasing funding] would provide students with the classes they need, avoid another tuition increase, and admit an additional 18,000 students.” Increasing funding for public universities would allow more students from different socioeconomic backgrounds to afford to go to college without fear of swimming in student debt. More students going to college means more educated employees prepared to work and contribute to the economy.

Sadly, funding for public universities in the UC, CSU, and CA Community Colleges has only been on a decline after the 2008 recession, when financial support plummeted. Only last year, the CSU trustees voted to raise tuition by five percent, amid cuts to state funds. This decrease in funding has led to a lower admittance and enrollment rate, with CSUs and UCs going from a 22 percent admittance rate to an 18 percent admittance rate from 2013. This caused students who were perfectly eligible for California public universities to end up not even going to college at all.


Where we can we find the money for public education? Prisons. California is #1 in per-prisoner funding. California spends $75,000 on each inmate, while the national average is $33,000, says California senator Kamala Harris. In contrast, California spends $8,500 per public university student, while the national average is $11,000.

California’s prisons are overcrowded due to a variety of factors, including its rehabilitation system and mandatory sentencing laws, which increase the funding per prisoner.

Reforming the prison system in which criminals with minor offenses are sent to rehabilitation centers longer than their time in prison has benefits. According to the Justice Research and Statistics Association, 57 percent of people receiving drug rehab were arrested after 12 months of release, versus 75 percent who only served time in prison, and 42 percent of people receiving drug rehab were convicted of a crime compared to 65 percent of those who didn’t receive drug rehab. Not only does this benefit society, but also the criminal. From a moral standpoint, more criminals will be able to rehabilitate, reflect, and eventually reintegrate into society. Rehabilitation is not only a humanitarian issue, but also could billions of dollars.

Research from the Dual Diagnosis reported that if 10 percent of drug offenders received rehabilitation, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion. If 40 percent were treated with rehabilitation, the savings would raise to $12.9 billion.
Additionally, reallocation of the California budget should come from minimum sentencing. California’s notorious and outdated “three-strikes law” is a big factor in the overcrowding of prisons. The “three-strikes law” imposes a 25-year minimum sentence for the third time felons, whether the convictions are minor or violent.

Even though California’s prisoner overpopulation crisis has been on the decline, the funding per prisoner has only increased, from $22,000 in 2011 to $71,000, currently. That is a 45 percent increase in just seven years.

Victor Hugo stated, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.” More funding for schools leads to opportunities for a more diverse range of students, which in turn interrupts the school-to-prison pipeline. A Stanford study reported that those without a college degree are 3.5 times more likely to go to prison than those with a degree, and “Only 20 percent of California inmates demonstrate a basic level of literacy, and the average offender reads at an eighth grade level.”

Let’s improve public education by reforming our prison system and higher education system in tandem. Let’s close more prison doors and open more opportunities for our youth.

A more educated California means smarter California.
A smarter California means a stronger democracy.
Let’s prioritize our students before our prisoners.

Julianna Lozada is a member of Students NextUP, a coalition of progressive high school and college students from throughout the 25th Congressional District and beyond.

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