Since the 1980s, the United States has aggressively pursued incarceration. The reliance on incarceration has also distorted public policy. This emphasis has devastated individual lives and entire neighborhoods. For many rural communities, prisons have become the focal point of economic development efforts -- this despite mounting evidence that prisons do not contribute to employment growth. While urban neighborhoods have been blighted, with investments in social and educational facilities drying up, millions of dollars have been spent to incarcerate people growing up in these same neighborhoods. One of the more pernicious trade-offs has centered on education. With state and federal spending tilted towards incarceration, education budgets have been squeezed. In the early 21st Century, as young people come of age in the United States, risks of incarceration are pronounced, but opportunities for education have stagnated.

This commitment to incarceration is not a response to growing violence; it is driven by harsh penalties for non-violent crime (especially those associated with drug use). These two charts (see below) contrast trends in homicide and incarceration rates in the United States -- before and after the "war on drugs" (circa 1980).

Incarceration Rates and Homicide Rates
Click here or on the graph to enlarge. Education vs. Incarceration Rate, 1967-80 Click here or on the graph to enlarge. Education vs. Incarceration Rate, 1980-00

The differences are striking. From 1967 until 1980, incarceration and homicide rates changed in concert. An increase in violent crime resulted in an increase in incarceration. Since 1980, however, this linkage has disappeared. Between 1980 and 2000, the incarceration rate more than tripled. But the homicide rate declined (by nearly 50%). The United States is not locking people up because street violence is out of control. Quite the opposite. The United States has incarcerated a sizeable portion of its citizenry (poor, working class and people of color) despite an obvious and well-documented decrease in violent crime.

This incarceration binge forced governments at all levels (federal, state and local) to make difficult choices when allocating limited budgets. As the following charts reveal, post-secondary education has been among the sectors squeezed by this relentless commitment to incarceration.

Post-Secondary Education and Incarceration Rates
Click here or on the graph to enlarge. Education vs. Incarceration Rate, 1967-80 Click here or on the graph to enlarge. Education vs. Incarceration Rate, 1980-800

From 1976 to 1980, the number of 18-24 year olds grew steadily. Nevertheless, the United States made the investments to provide educational opportunities to meet this demand. The post-secondary enrollment rate held steady; the incarceration rate grew modestly over this period. The "war on drugs" brought dramatic changes. It is noteworthy that the number of 18-24 year olds declined over this period and education has become increasingly important to securing a family-wage job and a rewarding career. Still the growth in post-secondary participation grew only modestly. By contrast, the incarceration rate soared.

Community Colleges, Budget Cuts, and Jobs

In the context of this incarceration binge, Andrew Crookston and I examined the employment impact of community colleges for rural counties. Our study, "Community Colleges, Budget Cuts, and Jobs" (full text, PDF) appeared in The Sociology of Education. Two podcasts are available through The Sociology of Education web-site. In the "SAGE podcast", Natalie Katz interviews us and provides an overview of this research. In the interview conducted by David Bills, Sociology of Education editor, we go into greater depth concerning the research and its implications: (see: "Editorial Team Podcast.")

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