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NAACP Report Says Shift in Funding Toward Prisons ‘Failing Us’

April 7, 2011 at 6:34 PM EDT
A new report from the NAACP shows states are devoting increasingly larger portions of their budgets to prisons, while education gets smaller and smaller portions. Judy Woodruff discusses the report with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: According to a report out today from the NAACP, states are spending increasingly large sums of money on prisons, at the expense of public education.

Its research shows states spend more than $50 billion annually on government-run correction programs. In the last 20 years, state spending on prisons has grown at six times the rate of spending on higher education. And one in 31 Americans is under some form of corrections control.

The effort to address the problem, identified in the report titled “Misplaced Priorities,” has attracted a measure of bipartisan support.

And joining us now is Benjamin Jealous — he’s president of the NAACP — and Grover Norquist. He’s the head of Americans for Tax Reform.

Gentlemen, it’s good to see both of you this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Jealous, let me start with you. What do you think is the most important finding from this study, this report?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS, NAACP: Our country has 5 percent of the world’s people, 25 percent of the world’s people in prison.

And we have too many people in prison. And what’s clear is that the policies that have put them there are failing us. Now, we know that there are policies that can make us safer that cost less, that are more effective. And the time has come for us to actually choose those policies, stop wasting money, stop wasting lives and stop needlessly breaking up families.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you know that there’s a connection to education, that spending, which is one thing the report recommends…

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that spending less — that it’s smart to spend less on incarceration and more on education? How do you prove that?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: … take it in two pieces.

So, on the one hand, we know that, for instance, drug rehab, dollar for dollar, is seven times more effective for dealing with nonviolent drug addicts, which are the bulk of people in prison, than jail or prison. On the other hand, we also know that, if you look, for instance, at the state of California, when California was known to really have the best public universities in the entire world, like in the ’70s and ’80s, they were spending 3 percent of their state budget on prisons and 11 percent on their colleges and universities.

Today, they’re not known to have the best in the world anymore. They spend 10-plus percent on prisons and 7 percent on colleges and universities. Let me say, Pennsylvania had a big budget battle a couple of years ago. They took several hundred million straight out of the ed budget and put it into a hole in the prison budget.

And we know that when kids don’t the high-quality teachers and the resources that they need, they simply don’t perform as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you see a correlation here.

Grover Norquist, fair to say you and Ben Jealous don’t see eye to eye on every policy question out there. What was it about this that caused you to want to be involved?

GROVER NORQUIST, Americans For Tax Reform: Well, over the last four or five years, I have been involved with a working group in D.C. of conservatives, center-right activists, who are concerned that conservatives have not participated in trying to rethink both prisons and federal and state corrections, judicial systems.

And over that time, this has become a larger and larger part of state budgets. It’s become very expensive. A lot of people just sort of said, whatever the prosecutors ask for, give it to them in the budget.

And when you look at it, you’re seeing a lot of people are sent to prison who perhaps ought not to be in prison, in terms of some cost-benefit analysis. And, again, we’re conservatives. I think there are a bunch of people who deserve to be in prison forever. I think there are some people that deserve to be in prison for a long time.

I don’t get weepy about the whole idea. But we are keeping some people in prison who might be better off in drug rehabilitation or under other kinds of house arrest or other kinds of control, other than very expensive prisons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the connection to education that Ben Jealous and the NAACP are making, that money spent on prisons, some of that money ought to be redirected to the public education?

GROVER NORQUIST: Yes. Well, that’s the NAACP’s study and analysis.

When taxpayer activists look at it, we say, let’s not waste money on prisons and the judicial system, if it’s not getting us safer streets and safer cities. What we’re finding in Texas, which has implemented a number of these reforms, there are drop in costs and getting less crime.

I’m in favor of allowing taxpayers to keep the money that’s presently being misspent. But that’s a separate discussion. Once you save money that’s being misspent, whether the government spends it someplace else or taxpayers get to keep their own money, we can have that conversation another time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you go about — so, you identify that all this money is being spent, but how do you go about persuading politicians, policy — public policy-makers to make a change?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Right now, there’s a whole lot of hope at the state level.

There’s huge budget pressures. And people are willing to kind of ask tough questions. And so we have gotten people in states across the South, for instance, to sit down together and say, OK, what works? Dollar for dollar, what makes us safer?

And so now, for instance, you see, in the state of Texas, there’s 18 smart-on-crime bills moving. You have Tea Party activists and NAACP activists pushing the same bills.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, Grover Norquist, I mean, traditionally, anybody who has looked at politics, being tough on crime is generally seen as a good move politically. Is this pushing in another direction here?

GROVER NORQUIST: Well, what I think conservatives bring to the table is that we have not focused on issues of prisons and criminal justice. We have focused on those things the government shouldn’t be doing and said stop doing these things, and not spending enough time focused on those things the government should do, but spending wisely, having cost-benefit analysis, making wise decisions in how you spend. Conservatives who have a tradition of being tough on crime, speaking to the fact that tough on crime doesn’t mean that everybody spends as many years in prison as possible.

Not everybody should go to prison. There are other ways to punish people, fines and restitution and house arrest and other things other than prison. And I think that makes it easier to make progress, because, clearly, Texas is not soft on crime, yet Texas is leading the reforms to spend less. They just decided not to build four prisons, which they would have had to do, because they were incarcerating fewer people now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you know where to draw the line, Ben Jealous? How do you know this is the right amount to spend keeping people locked up, these are the people who should stay behind bars, and these are people we can treat differently?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You start with the hard facts.

On one hand, more than half people in prison right now are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. It didn’t always used to be that way, but that is what it is now. And we know, dollar for dollar, drug rehab is seven times more effective for that population. So, boom, you’re going to deal with a whole bunch of folks.

At the same time, you can look back in the 1960s, when the FBI said that — that cops in this country solved 90 percent of the homicides. And last year, they said that cops solved about 60 percent.

Now, the cops are just as good now as they were then, but they’re focused on something else. And so what we’re saying is — and this gets down to it — look, we want violent people behind bars. Our neighborhoods are plagued. But that means that a cop has got to be able to focus on solving the homicides and not spending so much time frisking young black kids, seeing if they have a joint, when that kid really, you know, if he has a problem, he should be going to rehab.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there evidence out there, to both of you — I mean, Grover on this, too — that spending more on education is going to prevent young people from ending up in prison?

GROVER NORQUIST: You can talk to him about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yes.

We know right now, for instance, that, if you just dealt with access to high-quality teachers, right — and getting high-quality teachers in school means paying them more usually — that over half of the — quote, unquote — “achievement gap” would disappear overnight.

That achievement gap is largely a resource gap. You look at the schools in these areas that have high incarceration rates, they tend to have high teacher turnover, they tend to have a very low level of high-quality teachers. They tend to not have computers. They have a hard time with A.P. books. They don’t have music. Sometimes, they don’t have even recess.

And so we say, look, it’s just sort of obvious that, if you put more money here, just to get these kids up to what the kids in the suburbs have, they would do much better. School would be a more engaging place. They would learn more. But you can also see that that’s where the money has been taken from.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a big subject, much to look at here. And we thank you both for being with us.

Grover Norquist, Benjamin Jealous, thank you.

GROVER NORQUIST: Thank you.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanks.