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Analyst: Wisconsin Spends More on Corrections Than Education

Prisons, such as the Racine Correctional Institute, have been a growth industry in Wisconsin, which now spends more tax dollars on correction than on education. Credit: Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections
Prisons, such as the Racine Correctional Institute, have been a growth industry in Wisconsin, which now spends more tax dollars on correction than on education. Credit: Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections
November 30, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - A new analysis from the Wisconsin Budget Project suggests the state is spending too much on corrections, which is a drag on the economy and causes harm to the state's communities by splitting up families.

Tamarine Cornelius, a budget analyst for the group, says Wisconsin's annual corrections expenditure of $1.5 billion is out of line with the nation and with the state's neighbors.

"We spend about 12 percent more per state resident than the national average on corrections at the state and local level," says Cornelius. "Only 11 states spend more money per person, and we spend the most of any of our neighboring states."

Cornelius says lawmakers should take a hard look at the state's priorities, and consider using proven alternatives to incarceration. Among other things, she suggests making additional investments in keeping offenders who commit minor crimes out of prison, using proven techniques like treating their mental health or addiction problems instead.

She says these investments result in lower corrections costs.

As with so many other issues, Cornelius says there is a simple first step.

"The first thing we need to do is to say we have a problem, to say that these things that we've done in the past, which have really scaled up our prison population, haven't worked, they haven't made us any safer, and they're very expensive," Cornelius says.

For years, many Wisconsin politicians, including Gov. Scott Walker, have pushed a tough-on-crime agenda, saying that locking more people up makes the state a safer place, a point with which Cornelius and others disagree.

Few people may realize that the state recently passed a milestone, spending more money on prisons than education. According to Cornelius, over the past 14 years the state has increased corrections spending by seven percent.

"But over that same period, the amount of money it spends on K-12 schools has dropped about 14 percent, and the amount of money it spends on the university system has dropped about 21 percent," she says. "So, we're now at a point where the state is spending more tax dollars on corrections than it is making sure that people go and get a college degree at the University of Wisconsin."

According to Cornelius, by using alternatives to incarceration, the state can bring down corrections costs and still protect communities, which she calls a win-win for everyone.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI