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How Much Does A Prisoner Cost Per Year USA?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over 2 million people are currently behind bars in America, costing taxpayers billions of dollars per year. This article will analyze the key factors driving mass incarceration, the staggering economic costs, and potential solutions to reduce the prison population.

Key Causes of Mass Incarceration

Tough on Crime Laws

Starting in the 1970s, politicians pushed for tough on crime policies including mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, and truth-in-sentencing laws. These punitive policies led to longer prison sentences for a wider range of crimes. The average prison sentence increased from 2 years in 1990 to nearly 7 years by 2016. Tough on crime laws contributed significantly to prison overcrowding.

War on Drugs

America’s war on drugs led to dramatic increases in incarceration for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2019, the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes skyrocketed from 40,900 to 430,926. Harsh mandatory minimums were enacted for possession of even small amounts of drugs. Many experts now see the war on drugs as a failure that wasted resources locking up low-level nonviolent offenders.

Lack of Rehabilitation Programs

America focuses heavily on punishment rather than rehabilitation in its criminal justice system. Few educational, vocational, and rehabilitation programs exist for prisoners. This lack of training or treatment makes it much harder for ex-convicts to integrate back into society and avoid re-offending. America’s high recidivism rate drives up incarceration.

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Racial Disparities

Although African Americans and Hispanics comprise only 32% of the US population, they represent 56% of all incarcerated people. Racial disparities, particularly in drug enforcement and sentencing, contributed to minorities being disproportionately incarcerated. Efforts to reform sentencing laws aim to reduce these racial disparities.

Staggering Economic Costs

Mass incarceration places a huge financial burden on American taxpayers. Here are some key facts about the economic costs:

  • The US spends over $80 billion per year on corrections.
  • Average cost to incarcerate one federal prisoner is $36,000 per year.
  • Costs can range much higher, from $25,000 to $60,000 per inmate per year at state prisons.
  • Some states like New York spend over $60,000 per prisoner annually.
  • Estimated total costs including policing and court costs exceeds $180 billion per year.
  • Each sentencing increase of 1 year per inmate costs an additional $2.5 billion per year nationally.

Reducing incarceration rates could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars that could be reallocated to education, rehabilitation, and community-based programs.

Impact on Families and Communities

Incarceration negatively impacts families and communities as well:

  • 2.7 million children in America have a parent in jail or prison. Parental incarceration is traumatic and increases children’s likelihood of living in poverty or entering the justice system themselves.
  • Economists estimate GDP decreases by $1 for every $10 spent on incarceration based on decreased wages and productivity.
  • Incarceration contributes to family instability, decreased property values, and distrust of police in minority communities.
  • Having a criminal record severely restricts employment and education opportunities after release.
  • High recidivism rates show that for many, serving time in prison does not successfully rehabilitate or prepare them to re-enter society.

Potential Solutions to Reduce Incarceration

Many experts argue that reducing incarceration rates would not only save money but also strengthen families and communities. Here are some of the top proposed solutions.

Reform Sentencing and Drug Laws

Rolling back mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and laws that prescribe long sentences for minor drug offenses could quickly reduce incarceration. Lawmakers should re-categorize drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than felony in many cases. Marijuana legalization also shows promise for cutting incarceration.

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Increase Rehabilitation and Vocational Training

Expanding rehabilitation programs focused on education, job training, drug treatment, and mental health support could better prepare many inmates to find jobs and avoid re-offending after release. This approach could reduce recidivism rates and the overall prison population.

Release Aging and Low-Risk Prisoners

Releasing prisoners over age 50-55 who served long sentences could be done safely based on low recidivism rates for aging prisoners. Also, releasing low-risk inmates who were sentenced under harsh older laws could reduce overcrowding without endangering public safety.

Invest in Community Resources

Diverting more funding to community-based resources including mental health services, youth programs, education, and employment assistance could prevent crimes from occurring in the first place. Addressing poverty, lack of opportunity, and substance abuse at the community level leads to lower crime and incarceration rates.

Table of Notable Criminals

Here is a table profiling 5 notorious American criminals, their conviction crimes, year convicted, and sample quotes from the trial verdict or judge’s statement at sentencing.

Criminal NameMajor Conviction CrimesYear ConvictedSample Quote from Trial or Sentencing
Bernie MadoffSecurities fraud, money laundering, perjury2009“The breach of trust was massive. Investors – individuals, charities, pension funds, institutional clients – were robbed ruthlessly and without remorse.” – Judge Denny Chin
John GottiMurder, racketeering, conspiracy, illegal gambling1992“The defendant John Gotti is an evil man. He has taken lives and ruined many more.” – Judge I. Leo Glasser
Theodore Kaczynski (Unabomber)Illegal use of mail, bombing1996“The crimes you committed were monstrous.” – Judge Garland Burrell
Timothy McVeighUse of weapon of mass destruction, murder1997“The only way to adequately reflect the seriousness of this crime is to impose the death penalty.” – Judge Richard Matsch
Aileen WuornosFirst-degree murder1992“You’re one of the most dangerous criminals to ever walk the streets. May God have mercy on your soul.” – Judge Daniel Stetson

5 Key FAQs about Prison Costs

How much does it cost to keep inmates in prison per year in the US?

The average cost to incarcerate an inmate in a US prison is $36,000 per year, but costs can range from $25,000 to over $60,000 per prisoner depending on the state, prison security level, and inmate healthcare needs. With over 2 million people incarcerated, this adds up to over $80 billion per year in corrections costs.

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What is the average cost per inmate per day?

The average cost per state and federal inmate per day is around $100. This equates to nearly $36,500 per prisoner per year for basics like food, housing, and security. Costs per day vary across states from around $60 to over $150 per inmate. Healthcare, services, and facilities can drive costs per inmate even higher.

Does it cost more to sentence someone to death or life in prison?

Sentencing a convict to death costs significantly more than sentencing them to life in prison without parole, mostly due to legal appeals. A death row inmate costs an average of $90,000 more per year than a general population inmate with appeals driving up the costs. Executing an inmate also costs states millions more than incarcerating an inmate for life.

What percentage of the US budget is spent on prisons?

Around 6-7% of total US state budgets go towards corrections spending. The US spends over $80 billion on prisons and jails annually. For states like California, Michigan, and Connecticut, over 10% of their state budgets are allocated to the prison system. The US spends far more on incarceration than other developed countries.

How could reducing incarceration rates save money?

Reducing incarceration rates through reforms could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars per year. Lowering average sentence lengths, releasing elderly and low-risk inmates early, decriminalizing minor drug offenses, expanding parole eligibility, and investing more in rehabilitation and vocational training could all potentially shrink the prison population while maintaining public safety. Diverting funds towards community resources like education, mental health services, and employment assistance could also prevent crimes from occurring in the first place, leading to less incarceration and lower taxpayer costs.


In conclusion, mass incarceration delivers little public safety benefit compared to its massive $80+ billion annual price tag. Reducing incarceration by reforming sentencing laws, expanding rehabilitation programs, and investing in communities could make families and neighborhoods safer and stronger while reducing the strain on state and federal budgets. Rethinking America’s emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation could make the justice system more cost-effective, humane and just.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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