What Are America’s Prisons Costing Taxpayers?

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

The increasing prison population and growing costs of corrections are becoming common knowledge for both policymakers and the public. In 2008, Pew revealed that more than one in 100 adults were in prison or jail nationwide. Today, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of its prisoners. Stomach-turning statistics like these are innumerable when it comes to the country’s mass incarceration problem. But what exactly are the costs of this American phenomenon? There are the monetary costs to taxpayers but also the price society pays for a largely ineffective system.

Monetary costs to taxpayers

The price of prisoners can vary greatly from state to state. Among the 40 states surveyed in the 2012 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average annual per-inmate cost was $31,286. Topping the list was New York with an average annual cost per prisoner of $60,076.

In total, Vera researchers found that the annual price to taxpayers was $39 billion. That’s $5.4 billion more than the $33.5 billion provided by corrections budgets. The greatest cost drivers outside the corrections departments included:

  • underfunded contributions to retiree health care for corrections employees ($1.9 billion)
  • states’ contributions to retiree health care on behalf of their corrections departments ($837 million)
  • employee benefits, such as health insurance ($613 million)
  • states’ contributions to pensions on behalf of their corrections departments ($598 million)
  • capital costs ($485 million)
  • hospital and other health care for the prison population ($335 million)
  • underfunded pension contributions for corrections employees ($304 million)

The Vera report emphasizes that per-inmate costs can tell you the number of dollars spent, but not the effectiveness of that spending. Some of the states examined had lower per-inmate costs to taxpayers due to factors resulting in collateral costs to society or other jurisdictions. Variables such as overcrowding, greater incarceration of low-level offenders, and use of local jails represent a certain cost not accounted for in the figures.

While ensuring prisons are safe, secure, and humane is a necessary expense, the high cost should go hand in with a system that is efficient and actually produces those results. In the report, researchers for Vera encourage policymakers to actively pursue alternatives that will reduce spending without jeopardizing public safety, such as modifying sentencing and release policies, strengthening strategies to reduce recidivism, and boosting operating efficiency.

A 2015 report from Pew suggests that at the state level, policymakers may have been listening after all. Both at the state and federal level, sharp increases in incarceration and corrections costs were reported over the past three decades, yet between 2007 and 2013, the state imprisonment rate actually declined. Federal incarceration continued to rise, but according to Pew, “many states made research-driven policy changes to control prison growth, reduce recidivism, and contain costs.”

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Societal costs of mass incarceration

Calculating the American prison system’s costs to society proves more difficult, but it’s clear that these costs are numerous and often devastating. High recidivism rates don’t help prisoners or society, although the growing number of privatized prisons may stand to profit. Public safety is top of mind for many citizens, and prison’s impact on the incarcerated, who typically leave prison unequipped to reenter society, is a serious detriment to public safety.

Looking beyond the health and safety of law abiding citizens, prisoners have the right to an effective and rehabilitative system. When inmates leave prison having endured more harm, psychological or otherwise, than rehabilitation, the system has failed them. Juvenile detention can lead to particularly troubling societal effects. Many believe that imprisoning young people limits their accumulation of human and social capital during an essential developmental stage, setting them up for failure in the future.

Now consider which populations disproportionately occupy American prisons. Minorities constitute 60% of the U.S. prison population, according to a 2014 study from the National Research Council. Men under the age of 40, the poorly educated, people with mental illness, and drug and alcohol addicts are also over-represented. This isn’t just a problem for those who are incarcerated, it is an American problem.

The 464-page report assesses the costs of America’s “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” rise in incarceration since the 1970s. The NRC claims that the vast social costs of the prison system are in fact, a result of the poor policies that directly led to a disproportionate burden on poor and minority communities. Prisoners are more likely to come out of poor communities and return to those communities, which means the places that are least equipped to absorb former inmates are home to the majority of them.

The NRC’s suggested improvements include reforming sentencing policy, rethinking social policy (beyond prison walls), and re-inserting the following principles into the conversation: proportionality, parsimony, citizenship, and social justice.

Pew research from 2010 points to the threat to economic mobility as a tremendous societal cost. The report proposes effective jobs programs for newly-released inmates, as well as cutting prison populations and spending by implementing “a system of high-quality community supervision” for low-risk offenders.

Returning to the issue of public safety, a separate report from Pew, published in 2009, claims that increased incarceration has a relatively low, and declining, impact on the crime rate. The report remarks on the respective lack of funding for probation and parole, as well. Policy changes to reduce incarceration, according to Pew, will not only maintain, but improve public safety.

The relatively few societal issues discussed here hardly provide the full picture, but even the handful of reports discussed pose numerous solutions. The mass incarceration problem in the U.S. is complex but far from irreparable. There is no shortage of ideas for improvements and reforms. Policymakers, at both the state and federal level, have pages and pages of research to draw on. And even with the huge amounts of money poured into this broken system, the biggest cost is surely a human one.
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