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How Much Money is Spent on Prisons vs Education?

The United States spends billions of dollars each year on its prison system and education system. But how do these two crucial public expenditures compare? This article will analyze the costs of prisons versus schools in America and what it says about our national priorities and values.

Prison Spending in the U.S.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with over 2 million people in prison or jail. This massive prison population comes at a huge cost to taxpayers.

The Overall Price Tag of Prisons

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, federal, state, and local governments spend about $80 billion annually on corrections. This includes prisons as well as jails, probation, and parole. When you focus just on prisons, the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that states alone spend about $50 billion per year on prisons. The total price tag rises to $80 billion when federal expenditures are included.

To put this in perspective, the annual budget for prisons exceeds the individual budgets of federal agencies like the Department of Education ($68 billion) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development ($32 billion).

State Spending on Prisons

Most prison spending comes from state budgets, with over 90% of prisoners in state facilities. Between 1985 and 2015, state expenditures on prisons increased by 324% from $6.7 billion to $28.5 billion.

California leads the nation in prison spending with over $8 billion per year. The Golden State spends more on incarceration than higher education. Here’s a breakdown of the 5 states that spend the most on prisons annually:

  • California – $8.6 billion
  • Texas – $4.4 billion
  • Florida – $2.3 billion
  • New York – $2.8 billion
  • Pennsylvania – $2 billion

As these figures indicate, a few states shoulder most of the costs for the entire nation’s massive prison system. However, the high expenses of mass incarceration put pressure on budgets and taxpayers across the board.

Federal Spending on Prisons

While state facilities hold most prisoners, the federal system has grown rapidly in recent decades. Federal prison spending tripled between 1980 and 2013 to over $6.7 billion.

The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had a budget of $8.1 billion in 2022. The BOP oversees 122 facilities and over 150,000 inmates. Major federal prisons like Florence ADX in Colorado cost almost $400 million to operate each year.

Some key factors driving up federal prison costs include:

  • Increase in federal drug prosecutions
  • Longer prison sentences
  • More prisoners staying longer due to “Truth in Sentencing” laws

Building and maintaining prisons also costs billions upfront. From 1999 to 2005, over $34 billion was spent on new prison construction nationwide.

Education Spending in the U.S.

Now that we’ve seen how much the country spends to incarcerate millions of people, how does this compare to expenditures on schools? Education is consistently cited as a key strategy for creating opportunities, reducing crime, and preparing youth for the future. But does our spending reflect those priorities?

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Overview of Education Expenditures

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), total expenditures on public and private education at all levels exceeded $1.3 trillion in 2020. This includes over $800 billion for elementary and secondary schools nationwide.

The federal government contributes about 8% of K-12 education funding. The remainer comes from state and local sources like property taxes. Unlike prisons which are primarily funded by states, public education relies heavily on local property taxes. This leads to major disparities between wealthy and low-income districts.

When looking at higher education, the federal government spends around $90 billion per year. State and local funding accounts for over $320 billion for colleges and universities. Here is a summary of annual U.S. education expenditures:

  • Elementary & Secondary: $800 billion
  • Higher Education: $410 billion
  • Total: $1.3 trillion

Per Pupil Spending Varies

With over 50 million students enrolled in public elementary and high schools, the per-pupil spending rate is around $12,600. However, this figure varies greatly across the country from under $7,000 to over $20,000 per pupil in some regions. Socioeconomic inequities persist with higher spending found in wealthier districts.

These discrepancies lead to unequal educational opportunities for youth depending on their zip code. Furthermore, 19 states still provide less overall funding per student today than before the 2008 recession. These shortfalls pressure school districts to make cuts that negatively impact students.

State Spending on Higher Education

Higher education relies heavily on state support at public universities and community colleges. However, per student state funding for higher education is still nearly 20% below 2008 levels in most states. Tuition increases have compensated for some of these cuts, putting more burden on families.

State spending per college student ranges from around $4,000 in states like Nevada and Colorado to over $15,000 in states like Wyoming and Alaska. As with K-12 funding, access to affordable higher education depends a lot on where you live.

How Education Spending Compares Internationally

When comparing education expenditures internationally, the U.S. does not rank particularly high. America spends over 7% of GDP on education. Compared to other developed nations, this figure is lower than the UK, Canada, and Norway.

However, the U.S. does lead globally in terms of dollars spent per K-12 student. The U.S. spends over $13,000 annually per student compared to the OECD average around $9,000. But this high level of spending does not necessarily translate to better academic outcomes.

International test results reveal that American students lag behind leading education systems like those in South Korea, Japan, and Finland that spend comparable or lower amounts per pupil. Ultimately, how education dollars are allocated matters more than simply spending more. Investing wisely in policies proven to raise achievement is crucial.

Prisons vs Education Spending Over Time

Now that we’ve examined the costs of prisons and schools independently, how exactly do they compare in terms of spending growth trends over recent decades?

Dramatic Growth in Prison Spending

As incarceration rates soared since the 1980s and tough on crime policies prevailed, prison expenditures climbed. Between 1989 and 2009, state corrections spending increased by 6 times the rate of higher education spending.

Here is a comparison of the percent growth in state prison budgets versus higher education from 1989 to 2013:

  • Prisons: 412% increase
  • Higher Education: 114% increase

These figures reveal how spending priorities have shifted dramatically toward prisons. Meanwhile, investments in university systems have lagged despite the vital role of higher education.

Declining Support for Higher Education

In the early 1990s, many states spent nearly 2 times as much on higher education as corrections. But over the ensuing 25 years, this balance flipped as prison budgets outgrew colleges.

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By 2015, overall state expenditures on prisons exceeded spending on higher education in around half of states. Given that the typical costs of incarcerating an inmate are estimated between $30,000 and $60,000 annually, the surging prison population has placed major strain on budgets.

State legislators face limited options when so much funding is swallowed up by incarceration. Supporting affordable tuition and quality education becomes harder as prisons claim an increasing share of public resources. With less subsidization, costs shift to students and reduce accessibility.

The Federal Contribution

At the federal level, there has been more parity between investments in colleges versus incarceration. The Pell Grant program awarded over $27 billion in grants to 6.2 million undergraduate students with financial need in 2021. The Federal Work-Study Program added nearly $1.2 billion in aid. This all represents a substantial federal contribution to higher education accessibility.

However, the federal government still spends much more on locking people up than providing grants to send them to college. Roughly 55% of all Department of Justice discretionary spending goes to prisons and incarceration rather than education programs. So while Washington contributes billions to college affordability, billions more go to sustain America’s prison system.

Impact on State Budgets

The rise in incarceration rates and prison spending over the past 40 years has squeezed state budgets. Corrections departments now rank as some of the top expenses for states, exceeded only by health care, education, and transportation.

With so much public money directed to prisons, fewer dollars remain for priorities like schools, social services, infrastructure, and tax relief. These dynamics reveal how political “tough on crime” policies have major fiscal implications. Below are some key effects of climbing prison costs on states.

Reduced Spending in Other Areas

To accommodate growing incarceration expenditures, legislators must make cuts in other areas or raise taxes. Evidence suggests that increased spending on prisons crowds out funding for education at the state level.

One study found that a 1% growth in corrections spending led to a 0.34% decline in education outlays. With more public dollars directed to prisons, states struggle to fund universities, schools, scholarships, and other education priorities. This zero sum tradeoff disproportionately impacts low income communities.

Growing Burden on Taxpayers

State budgets rely heavily on tax revenues. As corrections claim an expanding portion of budgets, legislators often raise taxes to compensate. From 1986 to 2001, corrections-driven tax increases cost $10 for every citizen, diverting dollars that could have funded tax relief or social programs.

Unlike investments in education which develop human capital and reduce future costs, spending on prisons offers low economic returns. Locking ever more people up imposes major taxes now in exchange for minimal long term benefits. Some states like Michigan now spend more on corrections than higher education. Citizens foot the bill.

Cuts to Higher Education

Declining state support due to prison costs has damaged higher education funding. With less public subsidization, colleges increasingly rely on tuition to compensate. This cost shift worsens inequality, debt, and lack of access. From 1987 to 2015, average tuition rose 179% as expenditures on prisons grew while higher education stalled. Students suffer the consequences.

Table of Major Crimes & Punishments in U.S. History

Here are some notable crimes that shaped legal history regarding incarceration and the death penalty in the United States:

CrimeYearDescriptionConviction & Sentence
Lindbergh Kidnapping1932Charles Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped & killed. Over 200,000 people were questioned by authorities.Richard Hauptmann was convicted of murder and executed in 1936 via electric chair. He maintained his innocence.
Leopold and Loeb Murder1924Teenagers Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr. murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago. They were sons of wealthy families.Due to their age and prominent families, both men were spared the death penalty. They were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. Loeb was killed in prison in 1936. Leopold was released on parole in 1958 at age 53.
Patty Hearst Kidnapping1974Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). She later helped the group rob a bank before her arrest.Hearst claimed she was brainwashed and feared for her life. She was convicted for armed robbery and served 22 months in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Carter in 1979. She was later pardoned by President Clinton.
Jeffrey Dahmer Murders1978 – 1991Dahmer murdered, dismembered, and ate parts of 17 male victims. He was deemed sane at trial.Dahmer was convicted of 15 murders and sentenced to 15 life terms. He was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1994 after being jailed for just 2 years.
1995 Oklahoma City Bombing1995Anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb outside a federal building, killing 168 people.McVeigh was convicted on federal murder and terrorism charges. He was executed by lethal injection in 2001. Co-conspirator Terry Nichols was sentenced to life without parole.
Columbine High School Massacre1999Students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher at the Colorado high school. They committed suicide during the attack.The massacre highlighted gaps in mental health support and fueled debate over gun control laws. Both shooters were dead so no charges were filed. Some victims’ families filed civil lawsuits against shooters’ parents.

Quotes on Justice and Incarceration

Many influential figures have shared thoughts on the complex issues surrounding America’s justice system, punishment vs. rehabilitation, and human rights. Here are some noteworthy quotes on issues of crime and incarceration:

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Our criminal justice system demands consequences for acts that are deemed unlawful, but it should not demand the forfeiture of an offender’s future.” – Cory Booker

“If you think that it is only people of color and people without money who wind up in prisons in America, you are wrong.” – Michelle Alexander

“We know we cannot uncritically accept mass incarceration in this country as inevitable. We need to end it. How we act to create change matters.” – Bryan Stevenson

“Kids would rather be in after-school programs massaging each other’s shoulders than out on the corner shooting each other.” – Jamie Foxx

These perspectives stress the need for a more humane, restorative, and equitable vision of justice in America. Mass incarceration is a policy choice, not an inevitability. There are better ways forward that invest in communities, not cages.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about spending on prisons versus education in the U.S.

Does the U.S. really spend more on prisons than schools?

The U.S. spends over $80 billion on prisons compared to around $800 billion on K-12 education nationwide. However, in over half of states, more public funds now go to prisons than higher education. For example, Pennsylvania spends $2 billion on corrections but only $1.5 billion on its 14 public universities.

How does prison spending affect state budgets and taxpayers?

High incarceration eats up funds needed for programs like education and social services. As more money goes to prisons, states raise taxes and/or make cuts. Citizens lose out on investments in infrastructure, health care, tax relief, and other public goods.

Why has education spending not kept pace with prisons?

“Tough on crime” attitudes led politicians to dramatically escalate anti-drug laws and sentencing since the 1980s. Prison populations swelled as a result. State budgets diverted funds to build and operate more prisons. Education funding stalled in many states as available tax dollars went to incarceration instead.

Does the rise in prison spending cause tuition hikes?

Public colleges depend heavily on state support. As corrections budgets grew, less money was left for higher education. To compensate, universities increased tuition and fees shifting costs to students. From 1988 to 2015, tuition spiked 213% nationwide while state funding dropped 13% per student.

How does the U.S. compare globally on education spending?

The U.S. spends over $13,000 per K-12 student. This exceeds most countries, yet American students still underperform on international assessments. Outcomes depend on how funds get invested. Countries spending less like South Korea and Finland often get better results by prioritizing teacher pay and training.


In examining expenditures on incarceration versus education, America’s priorities are clear. Over the past 40 years, state and federal spending on prisons has skyrocketed while education funding has stalled or declined. Instead of investing in schools and opportunities to develop human capital, billions of taxpayer dollars go toward locking people away with little rehabilitation or economic return.

Meanwhile, soaring tuition and inadequate K-12 funding undermine equal access to quality education. Students suffer while prisons profit. Reversing this trend will require fundamentally rethinking justice policies and making education a higher public spending priority. Resources should go to classrooms, not cages. Although mass incarceration has momentum, smarter approaches can redirect money from prisons to schools to build healthier communities for all.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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