Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Cost of Incarceration

By Stephanie HahmPublished November 9, 2014

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The current US prison system is broken. Though levels of crime have gone down dramatically, the incarceration rate has been increasing. The biggest problem, however, is the cost that goes behind everything. Our state and federal governments should make changes not only to alleviate budget pressures, but to also improve inmates' futures after imprisonment.
By Stephanie Hahm, 11/9/14


Orange is the New Black has been the trending TV series that has brought to public attention the issues and experiences of prison life. The show allows viewers to consider the complexity of race and gender politics, see the day-to-day incidents prisoners encounter, and even sympathize for the characters on this comedy drama. However, this heavy-hearted show does not quite look at the economic issues behind incarceration in the US—an equally important problem that should be part of the American conversation.

Entrepreneur and vlogger Hank Green recently created a video that shed light on the current statistics on incarceration rates and the effect it has on the American public. Using research from the Prison Policy Initiative, he states that "some institutions spend $100,000 per year per prisoner"—and this budget comes from taxpayer dollars.  And in addition to the individual expenses of each prisoner, the US has a lot of prisoners. In fact, the US has the highest incarceration population in the world, with a total of 2,228,424 prisoners. In fact, we have 5% of the world's population but 25% of the world's incarcerated population. Because of the amount of prisoners the US has and the high price tag on each one, the issue is something policymakers must take a considerable look at.

When looking at the breakdown of prison costs by state, all states analyzed on the VERA Institute of Justice report spend an amount of money that exceeds their allotted budget. For example, in 2010, the state of New York, one of the states with the greatest level of spending on prisoners, had a $2.7 billion prison budget, but the total cost amounted to $3.6 billion. In addition to funds directly related to correctional services, the state must provide money for administration purposes, such as pension and retiree health care contributions to corrections employees, employee benefits, and services for inmates. Inevitably, the cost of such a large-scale war on crime project will be exorbitant, and a bit unreasonable as well. To put things in perspective, New York spends on average about $60,076 per inmate, but only $20,639 per public student in their K-12 education system. Clearly, our budget shows that there is an emphasis on the wrong things. It poses an interesting question about how our government should spend the money currently going into the prison population instead for the education system to stop the incarceration rates in the first place. Our priorities should lie in the root of the problem.

Prison spending is remarkably high for basic reasons anybody would assume. In a recent New York Times article, Michael Jacobson, the director of the City University of New York Institute for State and Local Governance and a former city correction and probation commissioner, explains that "83% of the expense per prisoner came from wages, benefits for staff and pension costs." Currently, New York City has a two prisoner to one guard ratio, which explains why most of the budget goes to staff. Even with lower prisoner numbers, there are fixed costs in the system that makes it hard for the budget to go down. One possible solution, however, to lower the costs of incarceration is reducing the waiting time people have in jail before their trial.

Even with just a glimpse of the statistics, it is clear that our current prison system needs to be changed. The amount of money, time, and investment put in to simply create ex-convicts who are no longer able to participate in society is a depressing and shameful matter. Though this article only considers the explicit costs regarding state and federal budgets, one can only imagine how many implicit costs there are with the foregone opportunity for more people in the workforce, the impact on children of the incarcerated, the influence it has on poverty and homelessness rates, and more. The Department of Justice reports that 2010 was the first year that the overall US prison population declined for the past 38 years. Our federal government should continue to make strides to maintain this decline. Though there are many ways to go about solving one of our nation's crises, one thing is for sure—our government needs to actively change the current state of incarceration.