The Staggering Costs of Imprisonment in the U.S.

Guess how much our nation’s system of mass incarceration costs each year? I’m talking about the taxpayer funded budgets of prisons, jails, probation departments and the public employees who staff them. Add in the cost of running the criminal justice system; the amount spent on health care, food and incidentals for inmates and the financial burden on families that have a person in the system.

Put all that together and guess how much we, collectively, spend on our system of imprisonment in the United States?

$182 billion a year. Let that sink in for a moment, at least $182 billion – each year, according to the criminal justice think tank  At a time when the nation’s crime rate is declining (except in a few major cities) the cost of incarceration is ever-increasing. Why is that?

Well, for one thing the criminal justice system does little to return improved citizens back into society. As a result within five years of release the inmate recidivism rate is nearly 77% . We keep recycling many of the same defendants through the system. The taxpayer cost of providing public defense lawyers, for example, totals about $4.5 billion a year.

Obama was the first sitting President to visit a federal prison – Oklahoma

Prisoner job training programs have increased in some facilities but meaningful rehabilitation or mental health programs to help convicts cope with reentry into society are still lacking. If more than two-thirds of ex-cons return to incarceration then it is pretty clear we are simply warehousing human beings, hoping they will voluntarily embrace a non-criminal life upon release. Not very realistic is it?

Another reason the system costs so much?  The past practice of doling out long prison sentences resulted in today’s aging prison population that needs more costly and specialized geriatric medical attention. Research from the Vera Institute of Justice shows the cost of incarcerating older convicts – more than $12 billion a year – is  double that of housing younger inmates.

There are many other reasons for the burgeoning costs. More than $5 billion is spent annually on construction of new facilities and interest payments on that construction.

Almost half the money spent on corrections goes to pay the government employees who staff the jails, prisons, parole and probation system.  They have a strong lobbying force that, according to the, “sometimes prevents reform and whose influence is often protected even when prison populations drop.” Private  prisons, by the way, house only about 8.5% of the US inmate population.

Families Spend Billions Each Year to Help Arrested Loved Ones -Flicker

Bail bond companies collect fees close to $1.4 billion annually from suspects and their families, money that is not nonrefundable.  When reforms to state’s cash-bail systems are proposed to protect the poor from being jailed while awaiting trial, the bail bond industry actively, and usually successfully, fights against any changes.

You may be surprised at the latest Department of Justice statistics (from 2016) that show there are some 450,000 inmates sitting in county and city jails at any given time who have not been convicted of anything. Exact figures don’t exist, but experts agree the majority of those awaiting trial are behind bars because they were too poor to pay their bail.  Might they also be a danger to the public? Maybe in some cases, but no one is keeping track of judge’s bail decisions, so an answer is elusive.

Families with a person in the system collectively pay out nearly $3 billion each year. For what? Well, if they want to stay in touch with a prisoner they pay specialized phone companies exorbitant fees – up to $25 dollars for a 15-minute phone call. These fees total about $1.3 billion each year.  And because prisoners who work and earn money make, on average, less than a dollar a day, families kick in to help their loved ones buy necessities like toothpaste, underwear, stamps or food products to supplement what they get from prison mess halls.  Commissary items are always way overpriced but it’s the only approved way to get prisoners with what they need. These purchases equal about $1.6 billion a year.

The Incarceration System Badly Needs Reform

None of this is to say we should be soft on criminals, especially career criminals. But a quick review shows the long overdue need to change course, re-prioritize and streamline the system.  Offering inmates real life education opportunities and coping programs could help insure they don’t reoffend.  Suggestions to “de-incarcerate” the infirm elderly and send them back to their families would substantially decrease prison health care costs. Creating a more uniform and fair cash bail system and rewriting the rules for monopolistic prison vendors would go a long way toward a family’s ability to financially help their incarcerated loved one upon release.

The current system is bloated, largely ineffective and destined to cost more and more every year. With the prison population in decline there is no excuse to stick with the dysfunctional status quo. Remember, it is your money that’s paying for it. To the tune of $182 billion a year.






  1. Diane Dimond on May 28, 2019 at 5:56 pm

    Reader Harold Krieg writes:

    “Worse yet is that fact that some of the people behind bars are actually innocent. ”

  2. Larry on August 14, 2019 at 5:32 pm

    Good article.
    I was told by someone that when many mental institutions were closed and the prison population went up.

    “The percentage of people with serious mental illness in prisons rose from .7 percent in 1880 to 21 percent in 2005, according to the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights.” ///
    The article was not too bad. There are many good responses what to do, many thing contribute to the mass shootings. Not too many years ago we did not have this problem. I grew up un a smaller town and students would keep rifles in their cars and trucks during school to go hunting after school. Society has changed and due to politics no one wants to agree with the other side.
    I see on the news DC has a lot of shootings, but they are strict non gun laws. Criminals are a problem.

    There are some items that you need to clarify on. There is a difference between a semi automatic and an automatic, Since the 1980’s civilians can no longer buy a new automatic weapon, since the 30’s you had to have a special permit. But if you ban automatics, that will cover semi automatic handguns, shotguns, semi automatic rifles that are used for hunting.
    You did post clarification “Reports, like those from ABC reporter Terry Moran, that machine guns are perfectly legal in Nevada and other states are highly misleading. ” from the Federalist.

    Teens today are joining gangs and we need to work harder on it

    This is another big item, they are going into gangs and pressured into proving themselves.

    Even just saying assault weapons should be banned is not clear, what is an assault weapon? An AR15 is a great rifle because it can be easily changed to a different caliber from .17 to hand gun rounds and hunting rounds, there are about 50 different calibers that it can be changed to or bought as for competition, hunting or self defense.

    1. Background checks for private and gun show sales.

    If you buy a gun from a dealer at a gun show you must do a background check, its a federal law.

    2. Prevent people with mental illness from purchasing guns.

    Pres Obama passed a bill that banned people with mental illness from buying a gun, that covered a lot including eating disorders. The ACLU was against this also.
    Yes mental health, but how to define it and not punish everyone

    3. Ban on high-capacity ammunition clips.

    Magazines, A clip is a different item. Why? You can reload a 15 round or 10 round magazine very quickly. Most time theses shootings come up, the laws that are proposed would not have stopped it

    4. Ban on assault-style weapons.

    Semi-automatic rifles able to accept detachable magazines and two or more of the following:
    Folding or telescoping stock
    Pistol grip
    Bayonet mount
    Flash hider or threaded barrel designed to accommodate one
    Grenade launcher

    During the ban the manufacturers got rid of Bayonet, Flash hider Grenade launcher (No idea why they put one on), folding stock. So after that it only had the pistol grip, they sold the same rifles during the ban.

    Also this is an AK47 with no pistol grip, the only thing it had on the definition is a removable magazine

    5. Create a federal database to track gun sales.

    This creates a gun registration. owning a gun is a right. If you own a car it has to be registered, it is not a right. When we see registrations confiscation follows.

    6. Bar gun purchases by people on the federal no-fly or watch lists.

    If you ban someone that is on the no fly list they have not been found guilty of something, no due process. Ted Kennedy was on the no fly list at one time. Even the UCLA agreed t was wrong.

    There are newer problems in society. Where are the parents? Working. Stop and frisk works but it is illegal. One state had police asking why someone was in a neighborhood, crime dropped but it was found illegal.
    We need mentors for kids, look for signs, schools are not able to handle issue because of teacher shortages and turnover.
    Movies, videos. I was in EEO and we had police doing presentations on gangs. They have members that have no record join the military, get training and bring it back to them.

    Gun owners are always under attack and we see it in different states and countries. When an article comes out we worry about information that is misleading.

    Did you know you need a special permit to own a pump shotgun in Australia?

    And when we hear someone say “Common sense gun laws” we know it will not be good.

    Thank you for posting sources

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