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Commentary By Robert Rooks: Focus On Education, Not Incarceration

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There is no greater threat to America's youth than the state of our nation's education system. Failing schools, college tuition hikes and shrinking budgets are narrowing the promise of education for young people all across the country.

Meanwhile, states devote more and more money each year to overcrowded prisons. Over the past 30 years, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education. At a certain point, we need to make a choice: Do we want to imprison or educate the next generation?

Today the NAACP will release a report called "Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate". The report uncovers escalating levels of prison spending, asks why prisons have grown so large, and reveals the impact on state budgets and children. And it has the backing of leaders from both sides of the aisle, including former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who served under President George W. Bush.

The District of Columbia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate of any U.S. city, and nine out of 10 people under supervision of the Department of Corrections are African-American. Meanwhile, District schools are facing budget cuts.

We can begin to fix this problem in our nation's capitol.

We can start by revising outdated crime laws. In 2008, eight out of 10 arrests in the District were for nonviolent offenses. Politicians win points for being "tough on crime", but at the same time face no accountability when their actions break up families and destabilize communities of color.

Luckily, reformers around the country are starting to promote policies that further justice, rather than policies based on fear and intimidation. Leaders like Kamala Harris, the new attorney general of California, remind us that we can be "smart on crime" -- focus on violent crimes, reduce sentences for nonviolent offenses, and start treating drug abusers rather than locking them up.

Finally, we need to reinvest money from prisons back into our children's future. We strive on ingenuity and innovation, and we cannot continue to squander human potential. Rather, we need to create an environment for success and achievement.

Smarter criminal justice and education polices are the solution that will ultimately keep us safer and keep our nation competitive.

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