Growth in WV prison spending far outpaces school spending

David Gutman , Staff Writer

Over nearly 35 years, West Virginia’s spending on jails and prisons has increased more than five times faster than its spending on K-12 public education, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education.

While every state’s corrections spending grew at a much faster rate from 1980 to 2013 than did its education spending, the disparity in West Virginia was among the highest in the nation, the report, released Thursday, said.

West Virginia spent 58 percent more on public education in the 2012-13 school year than it did in the 1979-80 school year, which, while significant, was the fourth-lowest increase in the country. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s spending on state and local prisons and jails increased by 483 percent over the same time, the report said.

The difference between those two numbers — the difference between growth in prison spending and growth in school spending — was the sixth-highest in the nation.
But West Virginia has lost population since 1980, something that is true of no other state. When population changes are taken into account, the difference between West Virginia’s prison spending growth and its school spending growth is the third-highest in the country.

West Virginia, in other words, still spends more on educating its children than on locking up prisoners, but the gap is narrowing, and narrowing more quickly than almost anywhere else in the country.

The massive increase in prison spending is largely the result of a massive increase in prisoners, although West Virginia’s inmate population has begun to decline in the years since 2013, when the study ended.

Just under 2,000 people were incarcerated in state and local prisons and jails in West Virginia in 1980, the report said. By 2013, that number had risen nearly 500 percent, to about 11,300, even as West Virginia lost about 100,000 people over the same time.

Prison populations in the United States increased 345 percent over the same time, while the nation’s population increased by about 40 percent.

“Budgets reflect our values, and the trends revealed in this analysis are a reflection of our nation’s priorities that should be revisited,” U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. said in a conference call Thursday. “We need to invest more in prevention than in punishment, to invest more in schools, not prisons.”

Lawrence Messina, assistant secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees state prisons and regional jails, pointed to the Justice Reinvestment Act, passed at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in 2013, as a step toward quelling the growth of corrections spending.

The law, which focuses on increasing supervised-release programs and drug treatment, has been credited with preventing the need for the state to build a new prison.

“West Virginia has enacted comprehensive, research-driven reforms that focus on community-based services and alternatives to incarceration,” Messina said. “Justice Reinvestment has already blunted West Virginia’s inmate population growth rate by a greater margin than what was projected when it passed.”

Annual reports from the state Regional Jail Facility and Division of Corrections do show prisoner populations declining since 2013, when Justice Reinvestment went into effect, following more than 20 years of steady inmate growth.

The new study shows that the gap also is narrowing between what West Virginia spends on incarceration and what it spends on higher education. State spending on West Virginia’s colleges and universities increased by 36 percent from 1990 to 2013, the report said. Spending on jails and prisons increased 300 percent over the same period. (For higher education, the study starts in 1990, not 1980, because of incomplete data sets.)
That difference is the second largest of any state in the nation, although West Virginia is not one of 18 states that spends more on prisons and jails than it does on colleges and universities.

“This report calls attention to the way in which states have chosen to direct resources not to higher education but to incarceration,” King said.

The gap in spending growth is almost certainly even larger today than the report found, as higher education in West Virginia has endured several consecutive years of budget cuts since 2013, while the Division of Corrections has, to a greater extent, been spared such cuts.

“We’ve got it all backwards,” Jim Justice, the Democratic candidate for governor, said in an emailed statement. “We need to make education our centerpiece,” he added, one of his campaign slogans.

“Better treatment and program options for nonviolent offenders are a must before their first parole hearing,” Justice said. “They can become taxpaying citizens much sooner, and save the state money. West Virginia has made strides on work-release programs, but again there is more that can be accomplished in this area.”

State Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican candidate for governor, pointed to West Virginia’s drug epidemic and said he supports more drug treatment and drug court programs for nonviolent offenders, but he also indicated that he would be tougher on other crimes.

“He will tackle our state’s drug epidemic by sending a loud and clear message to anyone who peddles their poison that they will pay a huge price,” Cole spokesman Kent Gates said.

Gates said Cole would audit the state Division of Corrections to look for savings.

The federal report recommended higher teacher salaries, especially in hard-to-staff schools like many in rural West Virginia, increasing access to preschool and increasing educational access for those already in prison.

“Reducing incarceration rates and redirecting some of the funds currently spent on corrections in order to make investments in education,” the report said, “could provide a more positive and potentially more effective approach to both reducing crime and increasing opportunity.”

Reach David Gutman at, 304-348-5119 or follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.