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Inside Criminal Justice

The High Cost of Prisons: Using Scarce Resources Wisely

February 12, 2012 08:20:13 pm

By Michael Jacobson

It is no secret that prisons are expensive. Except for Medicaid,  corrections is now the fastest-growing budget item for states. What may surprise taxpayers is that prisons are even more expensive than we thought, because of costs paid by state agencies outside of corrections departments.

As states strive to get the best possible returns on their spending, it is important to know the total price of policy choices—in order to use prison resources judiciously and to  rely on incarceration only when necessary to protect public safety.   

According to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice, prison costs that fall outside state corrections budgets are substantial. In many states these costs include fringe benefits, pensions, and retiree health care benefits for corrections employees (and the underfunded portion of these benefits in states that do not fully fund their annual payments).

Although in 2010 it cost more than $31,000 to keep someone in prison for a year, the study also found a wide range in the cost of imprisonment: from $14,603 per inmate in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York.  But a state’s per-inmate cost has little to do with efficiency or effectiveness. 

It is not necessarily a positive to have low per-inmate costs (as the result of overcrowding, for example) or a negative to have higher per-inmate costs (which may be due in part to interventions that help reduce recidivism).

The better goal is to be cost-effective: to spend resources wisely to get the best possible outcomes, both on an individual level for those who return to the community and, more broadly, as reflected by improved public safety.

Operating a safe, secure, humane and well-programmed prison is, and should be, an expensive proposition.

'Total Institutions’

Prisons are “total institutions” that provide everything necessary for inmates to live there—some for the rest of their lives. This includes adequate levels of security staff, food, treatment and programming (particularly those practices known to enhance staff and inmate safety and reduce recidivism), infrastructure maintenance, and appropriate health care for a population with significant levels of physical and mental illness.

Rather than focus on reducing per-inmate costs, the result of which may be poorer outcomes for security and recidivism, states should focus on limiting the use of prison for people who pose a real threat to public safety. Research tells us that continuing to increase the size of our prison systems will be only marginally effective at reducing crime.

We know, for instance, that targeted policing strategies, effective community-based reentry programs and increased high school graduation rates can improve public safety at far lower costs.

Declines in Prison Populations

We also see examples of states that have decreased their prison populations while simultaneously reducing violent crime. In New York and New Jersey, violent crime has declined dramatically at the same time that both states have relied less on the use of incarceration. From 1999 to 2009,  the incidence of violent crime declined by 30% in New York and 19% in New Jersey, while going down  by only fivev percent in the rest of the country.

At the same time, the prison population decreased by 18% in both New York and New Jersey after changes in policing and parole practices, as well as sentencing reform. In the rest of the U.S., , the prison population has increased by 18% during the same period. (In recent years, however, prison populations have declined in Maryland, Michigan, and Mississippi, while violent crime reached 10-year lows in all three states.)

It’s important to have an accurate picture of how much states spend on corrections.

This matters not only in terms of taxpayers’ dollars, but to ensure that our justice systems are effective and fair, and that society’s responses to crime reflect an offender’s risk to public safety. The question officials need to ask is not “How can we run a cheaper prison?” It is “How can we best use scarce resources to keep the public safe?”  

EDITOR’S NOTE: For additional notes and table showing change in prison costs and prison populations, please click here.

Michael Jacobson is director of the Vera Institute of Justice. He is a former commissioner of the New York City Departments of Correction and Probation and a former deputy budget director for the City of New York. He welcomes reader’s comments

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