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We must connect dots between education, prison

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WASHINGTON — The combination of miscommunication, ignored warnings and general hubris — all in a culture that discouraged internal criticism — virtually guaranteed disaster.

No, this is not a follow-up on NASA and the Columbia space shuttle tragedy. It is a commentary on criminal justice in America.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, after months of painstaking investigation of the Feb. 1 space calamity, has issued a scathing report of those in charge. A similarly independent body ought to take a look at our criminal justice system.

It would find, as the NASA investigators found, not so much a lack of information but rather an almost willful failure to connect the dots.

For example, the Department of Justice recently issued its annual report on crime, which contained this wonderful news: Violent crimes and crimes against property declined last year to the lowest levels since the department started compiling such records in 1973.

That's from the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics' August report, "Criminal Victimization 2002." This is from BJS' July report titled "Prisoners in 2002": America's prison and jail population increased by 3.7 percent from 2001 to 2002 — three times the rate of increase recorded a year earlier.

An independent board of inquiry might wonder at the logic of increasing levels of incarceration at a time of significant decreases in crime.

Perhaps someone would raise the possibility that the increased incarceration rates produced the decreases in crime. Well, that someone ought to talk to Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute. It was Schiraldi who called my attention to the inconsistency between the crime statistics and the policy.

JPI looked at the FBI Uniform Crime Report's homicide data and found this interesting tidbit: The regions of the country with the slower growth in prison population from 2001 to 2002 (the Northeast and the Midwest) had declines in homicides, while those regions with the greater increases in incarceration (the West and the South) had increases in homicides. Schiraldi's point is not that incarceration causes violence; it is that there is no credible link between crime rates and incarceration rates.

OK, you say. That's incompetence, but disaster?

Try this: According to another BJS report released last month — "Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Populations, 1974-2001" — one out of every 37 adults living in the United States at the end of 2001 had been to prison at some time during his or her life. That's about 2.7 percent. But for adult black males, the been-incarcerated rate was 16.6 percent (compared to 7.7 percent for Hispanic males and 2.6 percent for white males).

And it gets worse. By the Justice Department's projections, 32 percent of black males born in 2001 will spend some time in prison, unless something is done to change the trend.

And what might change it? Well, education might. As Schiraldi notes, there is a very strong correlation between educational failure and incarceration — especially among African American males. But according to a report the Justice Policy Institute released on Thursday, by the time they reach their 30s, nearly twice as many black men will have been to prison as will have earned bachelor's degrees. Slightly more than half of black male dropouts will spend time in jail in their lifetimes.

So why are we cutting funds for education — both K-12 and higher ed?

It is, says Schiraldi, our failure to connect the dots. "Schools are facing the largest budget shortfalls since World War II," he says. "And the decreases in state spending for schools is occurring at a time when drops in crime would allow the states to sensibly re-examine their prison policies.

"Look, I'm not saying people in jail are all innocent. I grew up in a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. Members of my family got in trouble from time to time — but none ever went to prison. If a third of my (white) nephews were looking at prison, we wouldn't have this policy. The president would declare a state of emergency, bring the best minds together to talk about education and treatment. Mandatory sentencing wouldn't even be on the table."

In other words, like the Columbia investigators, we'd connect the dots.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.