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How Much Does America Spend On Prisons?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2022, there were over 1.8 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails across the country. Housing this many inmates comes at a massive cost to taxpayers. But how much exactly does America spend on its prison system? This article will take a comprehensive look at prison spending in the U.S. and provide key facts and figures around the costs.

Prison Spending by States and the Federal Government

In 2020, spending on prisons by states totaled $55 billion. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) budget was $8.1 billion. This amounts to a total of over $63 billion spent on incarceration in America. Some key facts around state and federal prison expenditures:

  • The average cost per state inmate nationwide is around $36,000 per year. This can vary greatly by state, from around $15,000 in states like Alabama to over $75,000 per inmate in New York.
  • California spends the most on prisons out of any state at nearly $15 billion per year. Other big spending states include Texas, New York, and Florida.
  • The federal prison system makes up around 11% of total incarceration spending. The BOP budget goes towards staff salaries, facility maintenance, inmate healthcare, and other operational costs.
  • State prison spending accounts for around 3% of total state budgets on average. However, some states devote over 5% of their budget to prisons.

Prison Population Trends and Spending

The incarcerated population in America peaked in 2008 with over 1.6 million people locked up. Since then, numbers have declined somewhat due to criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing incarceration. Here is how the prison population has trended alongside spending:

  • From 1978 to 2015, the state and federal prison population increased by over 340% from around 300,000 to 1.5 million.
  • During this time, expenditures on corrections rose by 324% from $17 billion in 1980 to over $71 billion by 2015.
  • Since 2008, the number of prisoners has decreased around 11% to current levels.
  • However, spending on corrections has continued to rise and is now at an all-time high. Experts attribute this to increased healthcare and staffing costs even as inmate populations decline.
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The huge growth in the incarcerated population from the 1980s through 2008 is a major driver behind the high costs today. Even though numbers have stabilized and decreased somewhat, states and the federal government are still dealing with the fiscal impact of mass incarceration policies over decades.

Recidivism Rates and Impacts on Spending

High rates of recidivism – prisoners reoffending after release – also contribute to the scale of spending needed to sustain the prison system. Some key statistics around recidivism:

  • Within 3 years of release, around 2/3 of ex-offenders are rearrested. Within 5 years, over 75% are rearrested.
  • Of prisoners released in 2005, 83% were arrested at least once during the 9 years following their release.
  • The median time to rearrest was 1.9 years for prisoners released in 2005.
  • Recidivism results in re-incarceration for many ex-offenders. About 30% of released prisoners are reincarcerated within 3 years of their release.

The recidivism statistics demonstrate that most inmates cycle in and out of the prison system repeatedly. Housing repeat offenders keeps the incarcerated population and associated costs consistently high. It also shows that prisons are falling short at rehabilitating criminals and preventing future crimes after release.

State Budget Crises and Corrections Spending Tradeoffs

Prison expenditures take up a sizable portion of state budgets. When states face fiscal crises, tough spending tradeoffs arise around supporting prisons versus other priorities:

  • During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, many states instituted cuts across the board. However, most states maintained or even increased their corrections budgets during this period.
  • States offset corrections costs during challenging fiscal times by reducing spending in other areas like education, social services, and transportation.
  • State officials argue prisons are the most difficult area to cut due to constitutional requirements around providing inmates healthcare, food, and housing. However, criminal justice reform advocates say there is room for savings.

The inflexibility around prison budgets makes them highly contentious. Anti-incarceration activists push back against states preserving corrections spending by making cuts elsewhere. But states contend they have few options when facing budget crunches.

Alternative Corrections Spending and Reforms

Rising public awareness around mass incarceration has spurred ideas for alternative approaches that could lower spending:

  • Invest more in parole and probation programs to reduce reoffending after release. This could lower future incarceration costs over time.
  • Focus prison space on serious and violent offenders rather than non-violent crimes. Keeping fewer inmates overall will reduce expenditures.
  • Improve rehabilitation and vocational training programs to help inmates successfully re-enter society and lessen recidivism rates.
  • Reform sentencing laws by shortening prison terms, especially for drug crimes, that have led to overcrowding and ballooning costs.
  • Expand early release programs that let prisoners earn time off their sentences by participating in education, work, and other initiatives.
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However, there are challenges to scaling these reforms quickly to generate large savings. Prison populations take time to decrease due to current inmate backlogs. And reform efforts often face resistance due to public safety concerns. But policymakers agree focusing more spending on preventing future crimes rather than incarceration is critical.

Key Crime Convictions and Associated Costs

Below is a table outlining typical sentence lengths and annual costs to incarcerate individuals based on their criminal conviction:

Crime Convicted ForTypical Prison SentenceAnnual Cost Per InmateTotal Cost if Serving Full Sentence
Murder25 years to life$36,000$900,000
RapeUp to 20 years$36,000$720,000
KidnappingUp to 8 years$36,000$288,000
Robbery3 to 10 years$36,000$108,000 to $360,000
Burglary1 to 10 years$36,000$36,000 to $360,000
Fraud1 to 3 years$36,000$36,000 to $108,000
Drug Possession1 month to 10 years$36,000$3,000 to $360,000

This table illustrates how sentences that seem short on paper can equate to heavy costs over multiple years. Longer sentences for serious crimes like murder can end up costing nearly $1 million or more per inmate. Even shorter sentences add up, with each year costing tens of thousands per prisoner. This highlights the economic impact of incarceration terms even for more minor crimes.

Reducing sentence lengths through criminal justice reforms could potentially result in significant savings. However, prosecutors and law enforcement groups often push back against such changes in the name of public safety. Finding the right balance continues to be a challenge.

Recidivism Quotes and Perspectives

“Most recidivism occurs within the first three years after an offender is released from prison. Reducing recidivism is crucial for reducing crime and the enormous fiscal burden of incarceration on taxpayers.” – Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship

“Current recidivism rates are unconscionably high, unjustifiable, and absolutely unacceptable. Reducing recidivism and improving re-entry outcomes is a priority for this administration.” – Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

“If we don’t deal with the recidivism rates, the financial costs will continue to skyrocket as we repeat this ineffective and costly cycle.” – Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas

These quotes highlight how both sides of the political aisle recognize the policy and economic implications of high recidivism rates. Finding ways to successfully reintegrate ex-offenders and lower reoffending has become a rare bipartisan goal. However, meaningful progress remains slow so far.

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FAQs on Prison Spending

What percentage of state budgets go to prison spending?

On average, around 3% of state budgets are devoted to prison expenditures. However, this varies widely by state. Some states like Michigan, Oregon, and Connecticut allot over 5% to corrections costs.

Does the U.S. spend more on prisons than other developed countries?

Yes, by a very wide margin. The U.S. spends over $630 per resident annually on corrections. Canada, France, and the UK spend between $100 to $200 per resident. Even China spends less than half as much as the U.S. Other developed nations have incarceration rates around one-quarter to one-fifth of America’s rate.

Which states spend the most and least per inmate?

New York spends around $75,000 per prisoner annually, the most of any state. Following are California at $63,000 and Connecticut at $61,000. Louisiana spends the least per inmate at around $16,000 per year. Other low-spending states include Alabama at $17,000 and Kentucky at $19,000.

Has Covid-19 impacted prison spending?

Yes, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to increases in certain corrections costs. Prisons have had to implement costly safety measures like testing, quarantines, medical isolations, and sanitation. However, some costs like food service were reduced due to lockdowns. Overall annual spending may rise up to $2 billion due to the pandemic.

Are private prisons saving states money compared to public ones?

There is heated debate around this issue. Some research shows private prisons save up to 20% compared to state-run facilities. But other analysts argue there is no substantial difference once you account for factors like inmate demographics and cost accounting methods. The jury is still out on whether privatization reduces expenditures.


Incarceration comes at a heavy price for American taxpayers. While prison budgets may seem untouchable for states, the scale of expenditures ultimately competes for funding with other priorities like infrastructure, healthcare, and education. The evidence shows clearly that the current scale and focus on incarceration is fiscally unsustainable.

However, transitioning to a criminal justice system focused less on imprisonment will require upfront investments in things like mental health services, addiction treatment, job training, and much more. Policymakers face difficult tradeoffs between maintaining security and order versus diverting funds towards rehabilitation and prevention.

But with bipartisan agreement that mass incarceration has gone too far, perhaps there is hope for smarter approaches centered on true justice. With more reintegration and less recidivism, we can ultimately spend less on prisons and more on building healthy, secure communities for all.

Prison Inside Team

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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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