I’m always struck by the policy argument that the best way for states to save money is by spending less on criminal justice – in order to spend more on education – especially in the context of what people and society deserve. Of course nobody likes budget cuts to education, and we all support policies for more safety, justice and efficiency. But the cost of safety shouldn’t necessarily be argued as a loss for education.

Last month’s piece in the Huffington Post whose title models an adage by JFK, “What Kind of Society and Criminal Does California Deserve?” by Paul Murre, President of the College Democrats grabs readers with the fact that California has built 21 prisons versus one single university in the last three decades. Meanwhile, tuition for the state and university systems has risen substantially. This is a sad truth.

Education is at the root of lawful behavior and good citizenship, so the logic goes that if we invest more in schools and tuition (and less in prisons) then there will be less criminality to punish. But arguments that frequently pit the expense of prisons against the expense of education simplify and polarize people’s perception of spending on criminal justice (bad) versus spending on education (good). 

Two thirds of California prisoners do in fact lack a high school diploma and prisons have been swelling for the last 20 years. Something needs to change, but we cannot overlook what it means to truly ensure public safety and hold offenders accountable. It’s also important to keep in mind the difficulty in converting any narrative to numbers – whether it’s the number of people in prison, or the number of dollars going toward criminal justice – without losing something.

For a little history, Three Strikes Laws exist in about 24 states across the nation, and California’s Three Strikes, often noted among critics as expensive and draconian, originated in the wake of the murder of two young women: the 1992 murder of 18 year old Kimber Reynolds who was shot in the head in an attempted robbery, and the abduction, sexual assault and strangling of 12 year old Polly Klaas one year later. Both offenders in these cases were career criminals. To be clear, since news sources routinely misrepresent this, the Three Strikes Law states that third strikers must have been convicted of at least two previous violent or serious felonies. They can be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison regardless of whether their third strike is violent or serious.

California voters will soon consider Proposition 36, which would soften the current legislation by creating essentially “major” and “minor” third strikers: if his first two strikes are serious or violent and the third isn’t, an offender will receive a prison sentence which is twice the usual term for the new offense rather than a minimum sentence of 25 years to life. The extent of fiscal savings from Prop 36 is disputed.

While it’s important to streamline spending in all areas of government where possible, we must not forget that in the realm of criminal justice, incarceration may be absolutely necessary, and alternatives like educational programs for inmates is critical if they want to reduce recidivism and control costs in the long run. In short, while there is certainly room to cut costs in California’s criminal justice system, criminal justice cannot be evaluated solely on how cheap it is. As criminologist and Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia has noted, there is a very simple and immutable law of imprisonment: Almost everyone who goes to prison ultimately returns home–about 93 percent of all offenders. It’s imperative that states focus on rehabilitation and educational efforts for former inmates so that they might reintegrate as successfully as possible, and this still necessitates funding.

We cannot dismiss the importance of what is required in serving justice, especially since the state’s fiscal woes result from much more than our investment in the criminal justice system. The answer isn’t simply to criticize spending on criminal justice (bad) as compared to schools (good). It would seem a better policy recommendation to improve our criminal justice system, and our schools, but demonstrate the fiscal responsibility to do both. This requires important reforms for things like our complicated budget constraints and pensions. Prisons are just one piece of it.