A federal government shutdown is stoking a fiery national debate about government spending this week, mostly consumed by health care, immigration, and defense spending. For state and local governments, however, the issue most disrupting government spending is mass incarceration.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the annual cost of mass incarceration in the United States skyrocketed from $6.9 billion in 1980 to $80.7 billion in 2012 (the most recent year for which national data is available).
But that figure addresses only the cost of operating prisons, jails, detention centers, parole, and probation — leaving out policing and court costs, and costs paid by families to support incarcerated loved ones. A deeper look by the Prison Policy Initiative reveals that mass incarceration costs state and federal governments and American families $182 billion each year.
Factoring in the social costs of incarceration — such as foregone wages of incarcerated persons, increased infant mortality, and increased criminality of children with incarcerated parents — raises the price tag to more than $1 trillion, which is nearly 6 percent of GDP.
States foot the bill for the majority of correctional spending. A 2015 study found that 13 states reduced their spending on incarceration between 2010 and 2015 by reducing their prison populations. Crime rates also declined in these states, with most experiencing a double-digit drop over the same period.
Researchers have found that soaring incarceration rates in the United States have done very little to enhance public safety or reduce crime, which has been falling steadily since the 1990s.
A recent report concluded that incarceration is not only "an expensive way to achieve less public safety," but it may actually increase crime by breaking down the social and family bonds that guide individuals away from crime, removing adults who would otherwise nurture children, depriving communities of income, reducing future income potential, and engendering a deep resentment toward the legal system.
As local, state, and federal policymakers grapple with tightening budgets, these data point to mass incarceration as a prime example of wasteful government spending.