NAACP: U.S. Prisons Funded At Expense Of Education

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) says for too long, states have focused on incarceration at the expense of education. A new report released today by the group, connects incarceration rates with poorly performing schools. Between 1987 and 2007, the report shows that higher education spending grew by 21%, compared with a 127% rise in funding for corrections. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with NAACP head, Benjamin Jealous.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Allegations of a, quote, "hostile, sexual environment" at one of the nation's top-ranking schools. We'll talk about it and hear from the Education Department civil rights office a little later in the program.

But, first, the NAACP is accusing the government of having misplaced priorities. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is out today, with a report that connects high incarceration rates with poorly performing schools. The group has also launched a new center for financial literacy that we want to talk about with its president and CEO.

And, as was discussed last week on this program, there's some debate over whether increased diversity in the leadership ranks of the NAACP may dilute its focus.

So, joining us in our studio, the head of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous. Welcome.

Mr. BENJAMIN JEALOUS (President, NAACP): Hi. It's good to be here.

KEYES: We're glad you're here. Let's start with the report you're releasing today. It's called "Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate." And it suggests that state funds are being shifted away from our education system and added to the criminal justice system. The report also says that incarceration most affects, quote, "vulnerable populations, often people of color and destabilizes communities." What's your evidence for this?

Mr. JEALOUS: Sure. Well, you start with the obvious. Our country has five percent of the world's people and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Now, you can flip that a different way, a black person today in this country is more likely to be incarcerated than a black person in South Africa at the height of apartheid.

KEYES: Really.

Mr. JEALOUS: Five times more likely. Not like a little more likely, five times more likely. In fact, a white person in this country today is a little more likely than a black person in South Africa to be - a black person in South Africa at the height of apartheid to be behind bars.

And that's important because South Africa at the time was the world's leading incarcerator. So, we now are. And we've taken it to an entirely different extreme. You know, you can dig deeper. You look at the state of California. When I was a kid, states spent three percent of a state budget on prisons and 11 percent on public universities. Today is spends 11 percent on prisons, 7.5 percent on public universities.

And, you know, and then you can kind of look at what's just happened in the last couple of years. You know, two years ago, the state of Pennsylvania pulled $300 million out of its state education budget and stuck it into its prison budget. And you look around the country - Connecticut spends $400,000 a year to incarcerate one child. But less than 10,000 does send the child to school.

And, honestly, the kids come out of these facilities worse than they went in. And, you know, and you're sort of dumbfounded, right? You're, like, well, how do you spend $400,000 a year on a kid and they don't end up with a PhD and a Ferrari when they get out?

KEYES: What's this mean on the ground, to communities of color?

Mr. JEALOUS: What this means is that our country is hurting in a whole bunch of ways. These are all kids in this country, regardless of color, what it means is that public universities cost more and there's just sort of less there for them. What it means for black kids, kids growing up in the inner city, is that their neighborhoods have been incredibly destabilized.

I mean, take crack, for instance. You know, if I say crack addict, most people think black person. But the reality is, it's just not true. The biggest cohort of crack users are middle-aged white guys who work.

KEYES: You're saying it's a sense of perception.

Mr. JEALOUS: Well, yes. And it's a mass distortion by the media. Black people are 15 percent of the crack users, but 85 percent of the people locked up for using crack. White people are 65 percent of the crack users, but five percent of the people locked up for using crack.

Couple important things there. One, it means we already have a very lenient drug policy. We just reserve it for white folks. With regards to black people, what it means is that when you're locking up that many addicts, you're locking up a lot of moms. You know, black women behind bars has gone up, like, 20 times in the last couple of decades. And so the kids, coming back to the kids, that means the kids end up in foster care. It means kids don't have parents at home.

And so when you look at their math achievement, it's way below even neighboring - similarly poor neighborhoods where they just simply don't lock up as many people 'cause their home life has been so destabilized.

KEYES: Wait, so let me jump in here 'cause I want to ask you - you're pushing for the downsizing of prisons and an increase in education budgets. What are your recommendations for achieving this and what makes you think the policymakers are going to do it? I mean, it's not like this hasn't been suggested before.

Mr. JEALOUS: 'Cause we're succeeding all over the place. Last year we got the state of South Carolina to get rid of their disparity in sentencing between crack and powder, for instance, completely. We couldn't get the U.S. Congress to do that. We got - the U.S. Congress went from 101 to 21 last year. Victory, but partial victory. South Carolina - full victory. In New York we got the state to eviscerate its Rockefeller drug laws.

KEYES: We're talking about a legislature that can't even get together to do a budget. I mean

Mr. JEALOUS: Yes, I know, exactly. But, you know - and in Texas right now, we're pushing 18 smart on crime bills with the support of the Tea Party. Today at a press conference it'll be me and Grover Norquist and the head of the largest prison guards union and the most powerful in the country, the CCPOA, the California prison guards union, who also heads up Corrections USA.

And so we've been able to get bipartisan support on the ground at the state level. We've been able to get bipartisan support inside the beltway amongst various interest groups. Hopefully that'll spill over to Congress, but even if it takes a while to get to Congress, the reality is that most of these laws and most of these cases happen at the state level. And so making big reforms in states like New York, Texas, South Carolina soon, we hope in Georgia - it really starts to add up.

KEYES: All right, let me move on to a second topic. We want to talk about your new Financial Freedom Center here in Washington, D.C. But, first, let me give the listeners some background. Last year, a study published in the American Sociological Review found that predatory lending practices aimed at people of color led to a massive number of foreclosures.

This contributed to the housing crisis and the NAACP filed a lawsuit, last year, against lending giant Wells Fargo and 14 other lenders, accusing them of steering African-American borrowers into subprime mortgages. What's the center going to do as it opens this week?

Mr. JEALOUS: Sure. So, we have come to an agreement with Wells - really, a groundbreaking agreement. You know, the rest of the banks, we hope a few of the big ones will turn soon. We have reason to be optimistic, but technically we're still suing. Wells stepped forward and agreed to do four really important things. One was that they agreed to actually share data with us in real time. You know, our lawsuit was based on data that was three years old 'cause that was the best data that we could get access to.

It's a really dangerous situation when you had a trend happening in a broad industry like the banking industry. Black people and people of color being discriminated against and the best data you have is three years old. And so now we'll be able to get data in real time, which means we can have an open-door conversation and hopefully get things changed very quickly without having to go to court. Obviously we can still go to court if we have to.

KEYES: Let me break in just for a second. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with NAACP president Benjamin Jealous about education, incarceration, financial stability and we're going to talk about diversity in a second. But I have a question about the financial center, 'cause, I mean, I've had credit counseling.

Mr. JEALOUS: Sure.

KEYES: There's a lot of studies that suggest it just doesn't work and that the financial industry is so complicated that it's not really going to help people negotiate through the complicated housing market. Do you think it is?

Mr. JEALOUS: Well, that's why the advocacy work that we're doing is important. That's why it's important for us to have access to their trends data. The same data that regulators see, we will see it when they see it, rather than seeing it - and we'll see it bank by bank. Rather than seeing it for the industry as a whole three years later. Huge deal.

What it means is that never again will we find ourselves in a situation where, you know, you have the regulators not doing their job, you have the government lawyers not doing their job and nobody knows about it. Now we'll be able to insert ourselves.

Two, yeah, we'll be doing financial literacy training with people outside the bank. You know, quite frankly, a lot of that training, very different than most groups, will be actually sending people to the specialized nonprofit who can help the most. You know, a lot of the problem right now is people don't know who to trust.

For instance, take debt consolidation, if you know the name of a debt consolidator from a commercial, they're a crook. The reality is that the debt consolidators, you know, who you see on TV, there's a reason why they have so much money to buy all those ads. There's a lot of nonprofits who are doing great work, but they don't have a budget to market themselves. They won't be able to point people in the right direction.

But, to your point, it's not just about reeducating people outside the bank, it's about reeducating people inside the bank. And one of the things that we'll be doing here that most groups aren't doing is we'll actually be engaging high level loan executives in conversations about the history of racial discrimination in their industry and the most powerful solutions actually fix the problem.

We're on the verge of a situation where only 42 percent of black families own a home.

KEYES: Mr. Jealous, I'm so sorry to cut you off in the middle of a thought, but we want to move on to one more topic before we run out of time. Your group has been trying to boost diversity in its membership for years. But there are some people that are saying the new faces like your Dominican president in one chapter and a black openly gay president of another are diluting the focus from African-American issues.

We have a clip from Jamal Crawford who was editor of the Blackstonian, a community newspaper and website in Boston.

Mr. JAMAL CRAWFORD (Editor, Blackstonian): We just assumed that, until now, there weren't homosexual people or immigrants who are in the NAACP. It's just -of course there were. So, no, I don't view it as a problem. What my hope is, is that the NAACP will stick to the original business, what they were founded for, which is dealing with the civil rights issues, particularly that face black African-American people in this country. So I'd like to see the NAACP kind of stick to job one. And any deviations from that are fine and dandy after we get to a better place.

KEYES: What's your reaction to that?

Mr. JEALOUS: Well, I think I would say, definitely, but we're pretty much on the same line. I mean, the reality is, is that we have been a multiracial group from our beginning. From our beginning. And the reality is that what we have -you know, we have always, as we do now, like, for instance, with the incarceration issue we were talking about, or the financial discrimination issue we were talking about, we always start with the crisis of, you know, the magazine that Du Bois founded that we put out, you know, we always start with a crisis in the black community and we go from there.

When we end up helping many other communities and that's why they come to the NAACP 'cause they understand that our strategies, they lift up black people, they also lift up people of virtually all colors.

KEYES: Benjamin Jealous is the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. Wow, that was a lot to talk about. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much. We'll have to revisit this.

Mr. JEALOUS: Thank you. Absolutely.

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