Why neglect education for prisons?

By:  Reggie Rivers

         Thursday, January 30, 2003 - No matter how irrational the course, how futile the effort or how dire the projections, politicians continue to push a tough- on-crime message because it sells, and elected officials commit political suicide if they suggest anything less than unflinching toughness toward criminals.

         We're a nation of people who are terrified of crime. Our collective fear gets stoked each evening when we turn on the news to watch a compendium of horrible things that happened to other people, and each story carries the theme "you don't want this to happen to you."

In fact, news anchors routinely turn from the main story to a sidebar on how to protect yourself from the danger you just witnessed - as if two planes colliding in the sky was more than a tragedy made spectacular by its rarity; it also was something that might be looming in your future if you're not careful.

At home, we put up fences and drive our cars with tinted windows straight into our garages without talking to our neighbors. We double-lock our doors, engage our alarm systems and settle into our protected bunkers to watch the news.

This fear is the reason that we don't question the rising social and economic costs of prisons. We have a lock- 'em-up-and- throw-away- the-key mentality toward everything from violent crime to one- time mistakes to nonviolent drug offenses. Our fear is the reason that, while the state of Colorado suffers a budget shortfall every bit as devastating as the drought, we want to keep sprinkling money on our prisons.

Our fear is the reason that, even as the legislature debates budget cuts in child welfare services, disability payments for the needy and funding for K-12 and higher education (to name a few), we still shrug when the governor proposes increased spending for prisons.

This widespread public fear is the reason politicians won't sponsor sentencing reforms that could save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars; that could change the future of tens of thousands of lives interrupted by prison; and that could reduce the impact on thousands of families devastated by the effects of losing a father, a mother, a brother or a sister to incarceration.

They say that adversity reveals your true character. What does it say about us if we respond to the budget crisis by skimping on education and splurging on prisons?

According to the state of Colorado website, our 2002-03 fiscal year general-fund spending on public education in grades K-12 and higher education is $2.4 billion and $798 million respectively. By comparison, we're spending $495 million from the general fund on prisons.

(Additional revenue from cash funds and federal contributions helps finance each of these functions, but for the moment, I'm just addressing the general fund costs, because that's what the legislature is debating.)

On the surface, it appears that the best place to save money is in the education budget, because it's among the state's biggest expenses. But 724,508 students attend Colorado public schools, so the general-fund cost is $3,324 per pupil. According to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, 189,130 students were enrolled in the state's public colleges this fall, which is a general-fund cost of $4,219 per student.

Prisons are a completely different story. The $495 million we spend is used to hold just 17,367 convicts. That's $28,539 per inmate, or eight times the general-fund cost of sending a child to school.

Our legislators are so afraid of appearing "soft" on crime that they'd rather steal from education than deal with the disproportionate costs associated with prisons.

Sociologists have long concluded that education is the quickest way to escape poverty, and poverty is among the chief predictors of crime. By short-changing education in favor of incarceration, our legislators will ensure that more young people are ill- equipped to become productive Colorado citizens - and more of them likely will end up in our prisons.

Former Denver Broncos player Reggie Rivers (rivers@columnist.com) ) writes Thursdays on the op-ed page.