In recent years, mass incarceration’s cost has typically been estimated to be in the ballpark of around $80 billion a year. Federal, state, and local lawmakers have long criticized the price tag as too high, touting it as a key rationale for cutting the massive jail and prison population that has made America the world’s leader in incarceration.
A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative, however, has bad news: That $80 billion number is an underestimate. In fact, the real cost of mass incarceration is more than double the old estimate — about $182 billion a year for private individuals and local, state, and federal governments.
The Prison Policy Initiative analysis doesn’t look solely at jails or prisons, instead taking a broader view at the other actors in the criminal justice system — courts, parole and probation agencies, prosecutors, indigent defense, and so on. And it includes the costs of health care for prisoners, policing (for criminal law), construction of criminal justice facilities, food for inmates, costs to families (like telephone calls to prisoners), private prison expenditures, and more.
It’s a very complex web of costs, as the report makes clear in this infographic:
For reference, NASA’s annual budget is around $18 billion — meaning we could fund around 10 NASA-size agencies with all the money that goes to mass incarceration.
But the mass incarceration costs aren’t just at the federal level. Most of them, in fact, are at the state and local level, where the great bulk of the criminal justice system is located. For example, about 87 percent of prisoners are located in state, not federal, facilities, according to data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
What’s more, the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that its estimate may, if anything, be conservative: “We have no doubt that we missed some costs, and we did not include some costs because they are relatively small in the big picture or are currently unknowable.” Whether it’s $80 billion, $182 billion, or more, criminal justice experts conclude that the price tag is too high.
Even though the prison population has dramatically risen in the past few decades, researchers have found that it didn’t do much to reduce crime: A 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration explained 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, while other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s. (Although the Prison Policy Initiative report includes some policing, which contributed an additional amount to the crime drop.)
If mass incarceration isn’t serving its most basic purpose, why is it still going on? The Prison Policy Initiative argues that we need to look at who’s benefiting from locking up so many people to find out.
Lots of people — and not just private prisons — are invested in mass incarceration
The Prison Policy Initiative explained that the report helps expose “some of the key stakeholders and quantifying their ‘stake’ in the status quo” of mass incarceration. The report makes it clear, though, that this isn’t just about the private prisons that are frequently cited as the culprit in this story, but many other criminal justice actors too.
A few examples, taken directly from the report:
- “Almost half of the money spent on running the correctional system goes to paying staff. This group is an influential lobby that sometimes prevents reform and whose influence is often protected even when prison populations drop.”
- “Private companies that supply goods to the prison commissary or provide telephone service for correctional facilities bring in almost as much money ($2.9 billion) as governments pay private companies ($3.9 billion) to operate private prisons.”
- “Bail bond companies that collect $1.4 billion in nonrefundable fees from defendants and their families. The industry also actively works to block reforms that threaten its profits, even if reforms could prevent people from being detained in jail because of their poverty.”
- “Specialized phone companies that win monopoly contracts and charge families up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.”
- “Commissary vendors that sell goods to incarcerated people — who rely largely on money sent by loved ones — is an even larger industry that brings in $1.6 billion a year.”
All of these actors, especially public prison staff, have a vested interest in continuing mass incarceration: If we really cut the prison population, then their services aren’t going to be needed as much, if at all, anymore. That helps explain why, for example, public prison staff unions are some of the biggest lobbyists for mass incarceration in the country.
Taking on these different interest groups is crucial to dismantling mass incarceration. The Prison Policy Initiative concluded that “we need a far more expansive view of how our criminal justice system works, whom it hurts, and whom it really serves.”