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How Much Does It Cost To Keep Someone In Prison?

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 each year. But how much does it really cost to keep someone in prison? In this comprehensive article, we’ll analyze the financial and societal impacts of mass incarceration.

Average Cost Per Inmate

The cost of keeping an inmate incarcerated varies by state and facility security levels. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average cost per inmate nationwide is $31,977 per year. However, costs can range from $14,780 in lower-security facilities to $60,000 or more in high-security prisons.

Factors impacting the cost per inmate include:

  • Facility security level – Higher security prisons require more staffing and infrastructure. Maximum security prisons cost over 3 times more per inmate than minimum security facilities.
  • Healthcare – Inmate healthcare and medications are a major expense, costing over $12 billion nationally according to Pew Charitable Trusts.
  • Location – The cost of living and wages in the state impact staffing and operational expenses. Incarceration costs more in states like California and New York.
  • Private vs public facilities – Private prisons often operate at lower costs but may sacrifice rehabilitation programming.

When accounting for all these factors, the average annual nationwide cost exceeds $31,000 per state or federal prison inmate.

National Incarceration Costs

With over 2 million people behind bars and an average cost over $30,000 each, the national total spent on incarceration is over $80 billion per year.

Federal and state governments spend this enormous amount of money housing, feeding, and securing inmates. Some key national costs include:

  • $44.6 billion on incarceration at state correctional facilities
  • $21.5 billion at federal prisons
  • $84 billion total nationwide incarceration costs
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To put this in perspective, the United States spends nearly as much on incarceration annually as on foreign economic and humanitarian aid ($95.1 billion).

Mass incarceration is a massive expenditure that diverts public funds from other needs like education, healthcare, and social programs. Reducing incarceration rates would yield major budget savings.

Costs Per Crime & Time Served

The amount of time inmates serve and the crimes they commit also impact overall incarceration costs:

Violent Crimes

  • Murder – $600,000 average cost if serving 20 years
  • Rape – $240,000 average cost if serving 10 years

Nonviolent Drug Crimes

  • Possession – $120,000 average cost if serving 5 years
  • Distribution – $240,000 average cost if serving 10 years

Prison sentences have gotten steadily lengthier over the past 40 years. Longer sentences for nonviolent crimes contribute enormously to mass incarceration costs.

Some examples of how time served links to incarceration costs:

  • 5 years = $150,000+ per inmate
  • 10 years = $300,000+ per inmate
  • 20 years = $600,000+ per inmate
  • Life sentence = $1 million+ per inmate

Reducing sentence lengths and prosecuting fewer nonviolent offenders could significantly reduce incarceration expenditures.

Impact on Families & Communities

Beyond the financial costs, incarceration also causes major societal impacts on inmates, families, and communities:

  • Lost wages & reduced lifetime earnings – Incarceration severely damages future earnings potential.
  • Intergenerational poverty – Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to live in poverty and enter the criminal justice system themselves.
  • Familial instability – Families face emotional, social, and financial consequences.
  • Reduced political participation – Felony disenfranchisement laws prohibit voting for millions.
  • Community destabilization – High incarceration damages the economy and social networks of neighborhoods.

Mass incarceration perpetuates cycles of poverty, instability, and reduced political participation, primarily in disadvantaged communities. Reversing this damage requires spending more on rehabilitation and support programs.

State Budgetary Tradeoffs

Money spent on incarceration cannot be invested in other programs and services:

  • Kentucky spends more on corrections than higher education.
  • 11 states spend $27 billion on corrections versus $4.5 billion on welfare.
  • California increased correction spending by $10 billion while cutting higher education by $4 billion.
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High incarceration rates force states to make difficult tradeoffs that can negatively impact long-term societal well-being.

Arguments for Reducing Incarceration

There are compelling fiscal and ethical arguments for reducing incarceration rates:

  • Save taxpayer money on inefficient and ineffective imprisonment.
  • Invest more in rehabilitation, training, and community support programs.
  • Reduce overcrowded prisons which decrease safety and rehabilitation.
  • Lessen racial, social, and economic disparities from disproportionate imprisonment.
  • Decrease systemic poverty and instability caused by mass incarceration.
  • Balance correctional spending with other critical budget needs like education and healthcare.

With political will, policies can be reformed to reduce incarceration rates and correctional costs while still protecting public safety.

Policy Solutions

Several policy solutions could reduce mass incarceration while still serving justice:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimums – Judges would have more sentencing discretion.
  • Decriminalize nonviolent offenses – Shift resources away from prosecuting minor crimes.
  • Increase parole eligibility – Allow more offenders to be released after demonstrating rehabilitation.
  • Expand early release programs – Supervised release and halfway houses would transition prisoners back to society.
  • Increase correctional education – Education programs could significantly reduce recidivism rates.
  • Reform booking and bail policies – Many defendants can’t afford bail and remain jailed awaiting trial.

A shift in approach favoring rehabilitation over punishment has the potential to improve outcomes, reduce costs, and create a more just criminal justice system.

Case Study: California Prison Reform

California was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce its prison population in 2011 after lawsuits challenged the cruel and unconstitutional overcrowding in correctional facilities.

To comply, California enacted multiple reforms:

  • Diverted nonviolent, non-serious offenders to county jails instead of state prisons.
  • Increased early release through credits for good behavior and rehabilitation.
  • Expanded reentry and rehabilitation services to reduce recidivism.
  • Capped maximum sentences and allowed retroactive sentencing reductions.
  • Reduced incarceration for minor parole and probation violations.

The results were a significant decrease in inmates and costs:

  • Prison population declined by 30,000 inmates.
  • $453 million saved in the first year of reforms.
  • $1.5 billion projected annual savings once reforms fully implemented.
  • No increase in crime rates as prison populations declined.

California demonstrates that major justice reforms can successfully reduce incarceration rates and correctional costs without compromising public safety.

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Conclusion: Rethinking Incarceration

The staggering amount spent on incarceration totals over $80 billion per year while producing questionable public safety benefits and high societal costs. Redirecting funds towards rehabilitation, social services, and community investment has the potential to build a more just, equitable, and fiscally responsible criminal justice system.

Rethinking incarceration as a last resort reserved for the most serious offenses could yield transformative social and economic outcomes. The billions spent imprisoning mostly nonviolent offenders could be better utilized to strengthen families, communities, and public welfare.

As California’s example shows, reducing incarceration through balanced reforms is fiscally and ethically prudent. There are viable policy solutions available if we have the political courage to enact them. Mass incarceration is an ineffective use of taxpayer dollars with enormous human consequences. It’s time for a new public safety approach focused on crime prevention, rehabilitation, and restorative justice.

Table of Notable Crimes and Cost of Incarceration

DefendantCrimeSentenceEst. Incarceration CostConviction Quote
Bernie MadoffPonzi scheme fraud150 years$2 million“I cannot offer an excuse for my behavior. How do you excuse betraying thousands of investors who had put their trust in me?”
John Wayne GacyMurder of 33 boys and menDeath penalty$1 million“The only thing my DNA is going to prove is that I’m the person who was convicted of the crime.”
Ted KaczynskiUnabomber mail bombingsLife without parole$1 million“I don’t believe that you can reform the criminal justice system. I think you’ve got to overthrow the criminal justice system.”
Whitey BulgerRacketeering, murder2 life sentences + 5 years$1 million“I didn’t break the rules. I broke the law.”
Eric RudolphCentennial Olympic Park bombing4 life sentences$1 million“I have no doubt I am responsible for the explosion at Centennial Olympic Park; I acted alone in this endeavor.”

How much does it cost to imprison an inmate for a year?

The average cost to imprison an inmate for a year is approximately $31,977 nationwide, with costs ranging from around $15,000 to $60,000 depending on the state and type of prison facility.

What is the total spent on incarceration nationally per year?

With over 2 million people incarcerated, the United States spends over $80 billion annually on incarceration including state and federal correctional budgets.

How do incarceration costs impact state budgets and spending priorities?

High incarceration rates force states to divert funds away from other priorities like education and social welfare programs. Reducing incarceration could free up billions for other public spending needs.

Does the U.S. spend more on incarceration or other programs?

The U.S. spends nearly as much on jails and prisons annually as on foreign aid. Incarceration budgets exceed what many states spend on higher education.

Are there rehabilitation programs that reduce incarceration costs?

Yes, programs like correctional education, job training, counseling, and supervision after release have been shown to significantly improve outcomes and lower recidivism rates, ultimately reducing re-incarceration costs.

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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