Maryland Chooses Jail Over Schools for Baltimore Youths

Prioritizing incarceration over education is a nationwide trend.
(Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)
May 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Two days after Maryland officials approved spending $30 million of taxpayer funds on a shiny new jail for Baltimore youth caught in the snare of the criminal justice system, Gov. Larry Hogan removed $11.6 million from the city’s school budget and reallocated it to the pension fund for state employees, The Baltimore Sun reported.

The budget decisions reflect a pattern in Maryland and across the U.S. of prioritizing spending on incarceration over education—calling to mind what’s become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline”—and the elderly over the young.

On the heels of violent unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, which focused attention on the city’s racial and economic inequities, Hogan’s choice to defund education has garnered criticism.

“Given how the needs of our children have been highlighted by the events of the past few weeks, I hoped that the governor would have agreed with the general assembly that these dollars are critical for expanded educational opportunities,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a news conference following Hogan’s announcement.

Spending on prisons nationwide has outpaced spending on schools in many states in recent years, according to a 2014 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research institution. Though most states still spend more on education than on corrections, budget outlays on prisons and jails is on the rise while spending on schools is declining. The study found that the states making the deepest cuts to K–12 spending—Arizona, Alabama, and Oklahoma—are all among the 10 states with the highest incarceration rates.

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Although prisons are more expensive per person than schools, and imprisonment leads to costlier outcomes for criminal offenders compared with those who graduate from high school, such policies have been pushed most heavily in the last couple of decades by politicians who call themselves fiscal conservatives and are members of the Republican Party. Hogan is a Republican, and the Board of Public Works that approved the new jail is part of the executive branch.

The effects of such choices tend to be concentrated in low-income communities of color like the one where Gray grew up. High concentrations of prison and jail inmates tend to come from select neighborhoods—particularly those where children bring the damaging effects of their poverty into the local schools and tend to require more resources to educate them to state standards. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People studied this phenomenon in a report that examined what have been called “million dollar blocks,” where states spend millions of dollars on the incarceration of citizens in tightly defined areas even as they slash spending on education, housing, and public health. At the same time, the United States is among just three developed nations that spend more to educate wealthy children than poor ones, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Baltimore’s new 60-bed youth jail is being constructed to house teens charged as adults for violent offenses. Two years ago, the city considered spending as much as $70 million on a new youth jail. Some of these teens are currently housed alongside adult offenders in the Baltimore City Detention Center. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice criticized the state for housing youths and adults together. Studies have found that housing youths in adult correctional facilities can lead to higher suicide rates among juveniles, increased incidents of rape by adult offenders and staff, and assaults.