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U.S. Spends Record $185 Billion on Justice System is 2003

by Matthew T. Clarke

According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice?s Bureau of Justice Statistics in April, 2006, the U.S. spent a record $185 billion for police protection, detention, and judicial and legal activities in 2003. This represented a 418% unadjusted increase over 1982 justice expenditures. Adjusting for inflation, real justice expenditures almost tripled.

Local governments funded 50% of the $185 billion while state governments accounted for another 33% of the expenditures. This means that state and local governments spent four times more on justice than on education and twice as much as they spent on public welfare. Justice expenditures equaled hospital and health care expenditures at the local and state level.

The justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in March 2003--58% of them at the local level and 31% at the state level. That month?s justice employee payroll was about $9 billion.

Justice expenditures increased as follows per U.S. citizen between 1982 and 2003: Overall-418%; detention-423%; police-241%; justice and legal expenditures-321%.

Federal intergovernmental justice expenditures increased from $189 million is 1982 to over $5.1 billion in 2003. This was driven by the creation of multiple large law enforcement grant programs in the 1980s end 1990s. Between 1982 and 2003, federal government justice expenses increased as follows: police protection-708%, judicial and legal services-573%; and detention-925%. The increases for state and local justice expenditures were lower.

From 1982 through 2003, detention saw the greatest average annual increase of any category of justice expenditures with a range of 9% for local governments to 11% for the federal government. At 6.5%, police protection saw the lowest average annual increase.

Police protection took up 45% of the total justice expenditures while detention accounted for 33%. Because policing is primarily a local function and detention is primarily a state function, local governments funded 69% of the total police protection expenditures and state governments funded 61% of the total detention expenditures.

Alaska had the highest per capita justice expenditure ($621) and Nevada had the lowest ($147). The average was $228.

Approximately 2% of the national labor force worked in the justice system in 2003. Local governments accounted for 58% of them. State governments employed another 31%.

Payroll accounted for 59% of total justice expenditures. Police protection had the highest percentage of expenditure for payrolls (66%e while detention had the lowest (about 50%e. About one out of eight state and local government employees worked in the justice system.

In short, the U.S. has developed a bloated justice system that employs 1 out of every 50 workers and costs $185 billion a year, 4 times as much as it spends each year or educating its children. No wonder the criminal justice system is caught in a feedback loop, growing ever larger and more expensive. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin April 2006 Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States 2003 (available free online at

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