Child Poverty and How to Stem America's Prison Madness

Criminals, especially violent criminals, must be punished appropriately for their actions. Many deserve to go to jail.

America has followed this simplistic rationale for decades, and our prison population has ballooned to an all-time high. A jarring New York Times story reports that 1 in 99.1 Americans is currently behind bars. The cost for keeping them there last year was $44 billion, and that price is expected to rise to nearly $70 billion by 2011.

These out-of-control statistics are a national disgrace.

America's disproportionate investment in corrections rather than prevention maintains what the Children's Defense Fund aptly calls the "Cradle to Prison Pipeline." This system is a terrible short-term and long-term investment, both fiscally and in lives.

In the short-term, corrections expenses eat up a massive portion of state budgets. The Times reported, "On average, states spend almost 7 percent on their budgets on corrections, trailing only healthcare, education and transportation." States are forced not to fund other, critical programs because of the inflexible expenses of keeping the prison system running as is. For example, programs to strengthen schools or improve neighborhoods -- programs that would help to steer kids away from crime -- are scuttled to fund jails.

In the long-term, more and more people will go to jail (as many as 1 in 3 African American males at some point in their lives), destroying an untold number of families. Expenses on corrections will continue to soar, nudging out of the budget more and more of other possible programs.

Without a substantive national effort to help at-risk kids find a path to hope and achievement (No Child Left Behind pays farcical lip service to this), many are falling needlessly into lives of crime and incarceration. Marian Wright Edelman wrote, "High school dropouts are almost three times as likely to be incarcerated as youths who have graduated from high school." We need to address the root cause of why many people commit crimes--that they feel as though they have no better options.

Many poor black or Latino men commit crimes years after they give up on school and themselves. This tragedy does not have to persist for future generations. We can make changes to provide support and better options for children before they are sucked onto the criminal path.

We can do more to make those better options available at the critical, early stages of life. Let's invest as much in vaccines as in hospital beds, so to speak, so that the future can hold promise for everyone. As a double bonus, we'll also have less crime and a lower tab on corrections costs.

The Children's Defense Fund assembled a thorough and important report on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline and how to dismantle it. Here are their top recommendations:

• Ensure every child and pregnant woman in America health insurance for all
medically necessary services now.

• Lift every child from poverty by 2015; half by 2010.

• Get every child ready for school through full funding of quality Early Head Start and Head Start, child care and new investments in quality preschool education for all.

• Protect all children from neglect, abuse and other violence and ensure them the
permanent families they need when their families break down.

• Make sure every child can read by fourth grade and can graduate from school
able to succeed at work and in life.

• Provide every child safe, quality after-school and summer programs so they can
learn, serve, work and stay out of trouble.

• End child hunger through adequate child and family nutrition investments.

• Ensure every child a place called home and every family decent affordable housing.

• Ensure families the supports needed to be successful in the workplace, including
health care, child care, education and training.

• Create jobs with a living wage.

It's hard to argue with the final lines of the report's recommendations:

"Repealing and not extending the tax cuts for the top one percent of the wealthiest taxpayers could provide $57 billion of the entire estimated $75 billion policy agenda listed above. The war in Iraq already has cost over $450 billion through 2007."

We can do this if we want to. Both Democrat presidential candidates have spoken of the need to make the American Dream reachable for everyone. They must continue to speak to these points directly. All we need to make this happen is the will from our electorate and our leaders.

Dan Brown is the author of the Bronx teacher memoir, "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."