Arizona will continue to spend more to incarcerate people than it does on higher education under Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget. It’s a backward investment strategy for a state that’s already in dire straits.
Ducey’s 2016 budget, which he presented with the Republican majority legislative leaders signaling their agreement by standing at his side, calls for a $75 million cut to the university system, plus a 50 percent reduction — $10 million — in funding for community colleges.
Corrections, however, increases by $52 million. Some of that includes changes of health-care contracts, but it also allows the Department of Corrections to issue a request for proposals to add up to 3,000 medium security beds for male prisoners.
In aggregate, Ducey, a Republican, would spend $720 million from the general fund — our tax money — on the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona and the UA Health Sciences Center.
Adult corrections is allocated a little more than $1 billion from the general fund for fiscal year 2016 in Ducey’s plan. Arizona is one of four states that spends more than 11 percent of its general fund on corrections.
Incarceration is connected to poverty and family instability.
Researchers have long found that people who have been incarcerated have lower lifetime earnings, a harder time finding a job and lower levels of education than the general population.
While Arizona spends more and more on incarcerating people, our long slide in higher education funding is well documented. From fiscal 2010 to 2015, state spending of tax money plummeted 16 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which studies the impacts of policy proposals on the economy and viability of state and federal budgets.
Arizona has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, with more than 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2013. Ducey’s budget puts the inmate population at 42,961 through December.
For comparison, the University of Arizona has a student population of a little more than 40,000.
Corrections is a necessary expense. But other states, such as California, New York and New Jersey, have demonstrated that changing how offenses are considered and how people are sentenced can make a considerable difference in a state’s financial picture without jeopardizing public safety.
Instead of automatically funneling more and more money into corrections, the Legislature should explore other ways to bring down incarceration numbers. Alternatives such as diversion programs for substance abuse or mental health-related offenses, probation and reclassification of some low-level felonies are all possibilities that should be on the table.
States that want to be places where industries grow — other than those related to building and running private prisons, we should say — spend their limited money in ways that attract and keep employers with high-end jobs to fill.
When companies are looking at states and regions to relocate or expand, they look at many factors. The job creators are looking for excellent schools and a high number of educated graduates, not more prison beds.
Employers want a state that invests in higher education, and Ducey’s budget does not support that priority.