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The Real Costs of Incarceration in the United States

It has long been an open secret that government officials go out of their way to hide from public view the true costs of the many, many different aspects of America’s top-heavy and constantly growing law enforcement system; and in no area are those efforts more devious than when it comes to hiding the true costs of incarcerating nearly 1.6 million people in America’s state and federal prisons. One famous and outspoken critic of America’s propensity to incarcerate as many people as possible once described the compelling rationale behind those secrecy efforts by writing:

“Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed? ... There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of lawbreakers – and then you cash in on the guilt. Now that’s the system, ... that’s the game, and once you understand it, you’ll be much easier to deal with.” [From Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, Penguin Books USA, 35th Anniversary Edition, 1992, page 411].

Against that background, we note that each year the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) dutifully publishes an “Annual Determination of Average Cost of Incarceration,” and its most recent notice published on March 18, 2013 stated that the average cost of incarceration for federal prisoners in fiscal year 2011 was $28,893.40.

A recent article in The New York Times has raised legitimate questions about the validity of such estimates of the true costs of incarceration in America. On August 23, 2013, the Times published an article which reported that the Independent Budget Office of New York City had released a study which concluded that the city’s annual cost per prisoner was $167,731. [See: “City’s Annual Cost Per Inmate Is $168,000, Study Finds,” by Marc Santora, The New York Times, August 23, 2013].

While New York City’s average cost of almost $168,000 may not be a totally appropriate comparison to the BOP’s estimates, it is a firm indicator that something is seriously amiss with the BOP’s palaver.

We’ll get to why there is such a huge discrepancy between the BOP’s figures and New York City’s figures in a bit, but we ask our readers first to contemplate the following questions:

“If we assume for the moment that New York City’s estimated cost of $168,000 per prisoner is a truer and more accurate estimate of the real costs of our criminal justice system; and if we applied that figure to the nation’s 1.6 million state and federal prisoners, would anyone (other than the powerful and deeply entrenched prison industrial complex) oppose starting afresh and considering whether there are cheaper and more effective alternatives to America’s system of mass incarceration than spending $268,800,000,000 (i.e., $168,000 times 1.6 million prisoners) annually? For example, if we simply shortened prison sentences for non-violent crimes and instead paid for college or trade school education at a fraction of the cost, would that not be a more effective use of limited taxpayer funds?”

While a detailed analysis of the BOP’s cost estimate of $28,893.40 per prisoner would take far more space than we have available, we start by noting that Congress funds the BOP’s operations through two separate accounts: Salaries and Expenses (S&E) and Buildings and Facilities (B&F), and that the $28,893.40 figure does not include the capital costs of building new prisons for the ever expanding BOP – and that cost is huge. [See: “The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Overview, Policy Changes, Issues, and Options,” by Nathan James, Congressional Research Service, January 22, 2013, p.10. See also: “The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions,” by Nancy La Vigne and Julie Samuels, Urban Institute, December 2012].

In addition, the Vera Institute of Justice has long argued that the standard reports of the “average costs of incarceration” are woefully deficient because they fail to report numerous expenditures such as underfunded pension and health care contributions for corrections employees – and that cost is also huge. [See: “The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers,” Vera Institute of Justice, January 2012 (as updated through July 20, 2012)].

Beyond those two very obvious omissions, there are numerous additional related costs that should be factored in when computing the real cost of incarcerating prisoners. For example, there are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States which are authorized to investigate crime and make arrests. Certainly, the budgets of those agencies are part of the costs of incarcerating America’s 1.6 million state and federal prisoners – and some of those budgets are huge.

If we just added the $28 billion budget for the Department of Justice (which includes the budgets for agencies such as the DEA and the FBI), and divided that figure by the federal prison population of 218,952, that would add more than $127,000 to the annual cost of incarcerating each federal prisoner – and that’s without counting the budgets of dozens of other federal law enforcement agencies and bureaus that are not part of the DOJ, such as the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and all of the immigration and customs enforcement components of the Department of Homeland Security.

Some other obvious omissions from the BOP’s cost figure are: a) the cost of the federal judicial system, whose latest annual budget was $6.97 billion; and, while not all of that budget is spent on criminal cases, a significant and growing percentage is; b) the costs of the country’s Federal Public Defender offices and of the payment of attorneys’ fees under the Criminal Justice Act and similar programs; and c) the costs of supervising the 4,814,200 adults who are serving some form of community supervision such as probation, parole or supervised release – many for the rest of their lives. [See: “Probation and Parole in the United States, 2011,” by Laura M. Maruschak and Erika Parks, Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2012].

Add up all those items and it is clear that the BOP’s estimate of $28,893.40 per prisoner is palpably incomplete – if not deliberately deceptive. And, while we would be the first to admit that our own analysis is, of necessity, too brief and too incomplete to give concrete alternative costs per prisoner, we guarantee that the real average costs of incarcerating prisoners in the United States is significantly in excess of the BOP’s fictional estimate of $28,893.40.

The American taxpayer should begin demanding significant changes in the bloated, ineffective and very costly system of mass incarceration that still prevails in America.

This article was first published in the September 9, 2013 issue of Punch & Jurists, a weekly newsletter that covers the latest developments in the field of federal criminal law (www. It is reprinted with permission, with minor revisions.

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