The United States is the world's largest jailer, with over 2 million people imprisoned in 2014. The social cost of incarceration is not easily pinned down, and cannot be reduced to dollars and cents.
But the economic cost of jailing and imprisoning millions of Americans can be readily calculated.
Or can it?
At first blush, the figures are easily determined. According to Marie Gottschalk in her book Caught, local, state and federal spending on corrections exceeded $85 billion in 2012. Further, the nation spends over $100 billion on police, and around $50 billion on the judiciary. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law found the total cost of running the criminal justice system in 2012 to be $265 billion, a 650 percent increase from the cost in 1982.
These numbers can be broken down into a cost per-prisoner, per-year. Averages vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, with estimates running from the sub-$10,000s to the upper-$100,000s. Add more for elderly prisoners, mentally ill prisoners and those in solitary confinement. Though the yearly per-prisoner cost breakdown is not often exact, it can be -- and often is -- quantified.
The problem with most methods of calculating the economic cost of incarceration is that they stop when the prisoner is released. If the goal is measurement of the actual cost of incarceration, in dollars and cents, this is a significant error.
The impact of incarceration lasts well beyond release from prison. According to Bruce Western, a noted expert in the field, annual earnings of released offenders are, on average, 30 to 40 percent lower than the rest of the population. And Western's figures are the tip of the iceberg. Enormous numbers of released prisoners cannot obtain employment at any salary. But the bills still come, and food and shelter must be obtained.
As a result of underemployment and unemployment, many released prisoners end up in the social safety net. Welfare, food stamps and Social Security, when available, are heavily relied upon by this population. These programs cost taxpayer money, and as such, they should be included in any calculation of the economic cost of incarceration. Any number that does not include these real costs fails to properly capture the true cost of incarceration.
As such, the obscene figure of $265 billion annually is not correct. The actual cost of mass incarceration is much higher, and the cost is borne by taxpayers. If reform of the bloated criminal justice system is to be pursued, an accurate understanding of the cost is essential.
The reason for this is twofold. First, policy makers need accurate information in order to determine the cost/benefit of criminal justice policy. And second, taxpayers deserve to know what they are actually paying, long-term, to support imprisonment of large swaths of the population.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. In 2016 his Prison Law Blog was named a Top 100 Blawg by the American Bar Association. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com.
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