I have heard often that the US as a whole or States in it "spend more on prisons than on schools". This is apparently true for higher education, but I am interested in schools as in public education (guaranteed through age 16 in the US).

* CNN Graphic covering 40 US states

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    Huffington Post is not authoritative enough for you? I was just trying to find examples of the statement, not to support it. I leave that to you-all.
    – user29285
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 23:52
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    I simply want to know if it is true or not. I wish there was a site to get the answer as to what to do about it.
    – user29285
    Commented Mar 22, 2016 at 23:58
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    I understand, but the scope of this site is to address important claims that many people believe, not just individual speculations. (I have lots of questions I wish people would research for me for free, but the answerers here are motivated by correcting common misapprehensions/lies, not just researching any question at all.)
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 0:00
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    The CNN graphic is "cost per student" for education, and "cost per inmate" for prisons. It is not "total spent on education" nor "total spent on prisons".
    – GEdgar
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 0:52
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    @nocomprende You just want to answer it? You could do what I just did, having no prior knowledge of the size of either of these items in the US budget: google them. America spends over $550 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education in the United States [Atlas]. // In 2007, around $74 billion was spent on corrections according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. [Wikipedia]. So the US spends an order of magnitude more on education than corrections. Satisfied?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Mar 23, 2016 at 13:11

2 Answers 2


Take a look here and you'll find:

The FY 2014 Budget requests a total of $8.5 billion for federal prisons and detention

Note that this only is the federal budget. According to this page, the total expenditure for prisons is 39 billion USD annually.

Over here you'll find that:

The federal government allocated approximately $154 billion on education in fiscal year 2015.

The answer should be pretty definitive because the annual federal budget for education is way higher than the United State's total annual expenditure for prisons.

Conclusion: The US does not spend more on prisons than on public education.

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    The United States is not just the federal government. Much of this is handled at state, county and city level. So you need to add up those numbers too. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 16:48
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    @PaulJohnson In fact, I was just looking at the original article over at CNN and it specifically calls out that it's data is based on State Level expenditures and not Federal Level dollars.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 16:49
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    When determining state budgets you have to decide what all to include. Prisons themselves are only a fraction of the total "correctional" costs. A few government and non-gov resources I found suggest total costs <$50bil. bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/scefy8210.pdf vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/…
    – gesell
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 17:42
  • @PaulJohnson Thank you. I took this into account.
    – UTF-8
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 20:46

Whenever you see this claim, read the details. They usually make one of two claims: Prisons costs more per person, or it costs more than higher education. Both are true, but it often gets misinterpreted as spending more overall on prisons. The reality is that every state spends way more on education than on prisons. It's not even close. Look at any state's annual budget. Most of the money for schools and prisons comes from state and local spending, but you can make the same claim for federal spending, too. True, there are a lot of prisoners in this country, but there are lot more children in schools. This article explains it well (It's specific to California, but it's pretty much the same situation for every state):

Political Road Map: What does the state spend more money on, prisons or schools?

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