Please don't get me wrong -- this isn't a lead-in to some rant about law and order, or lockin' em up and throwin' away the key, or the rightness or wrongness of the American criminal justice system. It's also not about the near- and long-term costs or benefits of incarcerating people for breaking the law. Instead, it's about the statement and rhetorical question, in and of itself.
"It's amazing when you think about it," he said, "Because even for all the grumbling about the high costs involved with schooling, it's twice as expensive to imprison a person. How messed up is that?"
Much like other oft-repeated but wide-of-the-mark statements, like those about the fate of 50% of marriages (they don't), or whether certain groups weren't once immigrants to North America (sorry but ALL were, at some point, as I first saw on Choosing a Soundtrack last July and have kept in mind ever since), or whether a man named Crapper invented the flush toilet (he didn't), the implication that the prisoners and students spending comparison is somehow "messed up" doesn't really ring true.
The way people usually derive this is to compare the direct costs of education itself versus the entire cost of housing, feeding, and caring for a prisoner. As my eight year-old niece might say, "Well, duh."
One ought to be fairly expensive, as it involves salaries, administration, transportation, books, resources, and equipment, etc. from roughly 8 a.m. until roughly 3 p.m. each day. If we're talking college, people usually use the tuition itself, or the per-pupil costs to a state university, when making this argument. Still, it's not hard to imagine what's being included and what's not.
The second ought to be a whole lot MORE expensive, as it also involves intensive manpower and the resultant salaries, administration, transportation, etc. but also three squares a day, living facilities, health care and prescriptions, legal rights, and other basic 24/7 amenities that most of us folks on the outside take for granted. If we re-jiggered the numbers to include all the per capita spending on the lives of students (whether from their own or others' wallets), to include their housing, their meals, their entertainment, their transportation and fuel costs, and the uniformed folks who keep order on the outside, things might not seem so "messed up" after all. It's really easy to calculate per-head costs this way for a prison, but not so easy to do for an open society. I may not always appreciate it, but I am constantly deriving benefit from the fact that there's a police station within view of my house and someone waiting to answer a 911 call if I ever had to make it. So is a student who *only* spends 20k per year on tuition.
I happen to admire Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, and have said as much on several local blogs, for his politically unpopular but spot-on strident critiques of our prison-industrial system. For the record, I think it's important that we do whatever we can to prevent recidivism. If that means properly taking care of our prisoners, manning the corrections staffs enough to prevent sexual abuse, and making every effort to provide inmates with job skills, then so be it.
But just to tie it back to the top for a second, I just want to reiterate that my overall point here is NOT about the proper amount of money our society ought to spend on schools or prisons.
Frankly, I have no idea about the *proper* levels of either, and won't pretend to.
It's late, and I'm too lazy to look all this up right now, but if you showed me numbers indicating that the cost of locking someone up in Shirley for a year was four times greater than the cost of in-state tuition at UML, I just wouldn't be able to extrapolate much from that - it's just not saying anything.