In the last 20 years, state spending on prisons has grown six times faster than spending on higher education. In the 20 years from 1987 to 2007, the nation’s prisons grew by one million people. And the harshest statistic of all? The United States imprisons almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, despite the fact that we only have five percent of the world’s population. So what’s going on?

Do we have an unusually criminal population? Are other countries too lenient? Or do we have an out-of-control system of punishment in this country that favors incarceration over education?

An article on CNN.com looks at the question and references a recent NAACP report, which shows that spending on prisons has taken some of the money that could have been spent on education.

The vast amount of money being spent on punishment in our country is a direct result of the War on Drugs and the resulting get-tough approach to handling drug crimes. Poor and minority communities suffer the most from such policies. Meanwhile, these policies haven’t been particularly effective in combating drug crime and have had a negative impact on education.

For example, the NAACP report states that the lowest performing schools in Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are in areas with high rates of incarceration. The article points out that the cycle of “lowered expectations” that comes from high incarceration rates weakens the community fabric and stymies the future potential of its residents.

The CNN article says that treatment rather than incarceration, GED programs leading to early release and easier access to parole would all help alleviate the problem.

Many people hear the word NAACP and assume that whatever follows is liberal rhetoric, but the CNN article referencing the report and arguing for reforming the prison system is co-written by Rod Paige, the U.S. secretary of education from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush — not exactly a liberal hero. The other author of the article is Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP.

Even Virginia’s Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell seems to be behind prison reform. The CNN article points out that he is trying to close eight prison facilities and use the money instead on higher education.

The CNN article also uses this quote that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave in his 2010 State of the Union address:

“What does it say about any state that focuses more on prison uniforms than on caps and gowns?”

That seems like a fair question. What does it say when we have so many people falling behind in our school system, and yet our policy makers continue to try to appear “tough on crime” by supporting policies that imprison people sometimes to no discernible good?

None of which is to say that people who commit crimes shouldn’t go to prison. However, policy makers and their constituents must take a look at how and why we imprison people and determine whether what we’re doing is effective and what can be done differently. And, of course, we should spend at least as much time and money on education as we do on incarceration.