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Total Cost of Pretrial Detention Estimated at up to $140 Billion Annually

According to a report by the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) released in January 2017, U.S. taxpayers “spend approximately $38 million per day to jail people who are awaiting trial (63% of the total jail population, or more than 450,000 individuals on any given day).” The report noted that this amounts to around $14 billion annually – which would cover the cost of 300,000 firefighters or 250,000 elementary school teachers, or provide free or low-cost lunches for 31 million children.

Researchers recognized that the actual cost could be considerably higher, given that they used a conservative estimate for incarceration expenses of $85 per day – which includes food, medical care and security costs. “It is 60%-100% more expensive to jail people who have health, mental health, or substance abuse disorders,” they wrote. “It is estimated that two-thirds of people in jail suffer from these problems.”

Jail expenses also vary widely across the nation. On the high end, it costs an estimated $460 per day to house a single person at Rikers Island in New York City. That is “more than $167,000 per year – nearly equal to four years’ tuition at Princeton University,” the researchers found. “In 2014, 1,427 people had been detained at Rikers for more than one year,” which translates into an annual incarceration cost exceeding $238 million.

More importantly, “collateral costs to justice systems, communities, and individuals, have been estimated to be as high as $10 for every $1 in direct costs,” the PJI report observed. “This suggests that the true cost of existing money-based pretrial systems is closer to $140 billion per year.”

To illustrate this larger impact, researchers offered the story of Alan, a hypothetical defendant in Baltimore, Maryland. Alan was earning a median annual income of $26,164 when he was arrested for failure to appear at a court hearing on pending criminal charges.

He was assessed as “medium risk.” Statistically, that meant he had an 87 percent likelihood of remaining arrest-free in the community while awaiting trial.

Nevertheless, the court set Alan’s bond at $50,000, slightly more than the average for medium-risk defendants in Baltimore. It might as well have been set at $1 million, since he could not pay the ten percent fee to a bail bond agency – which would have required more than two months of his income. As such, he remained in jail for 42 days, the average length of detention, before pleading guilty just so he could get out. Taxpayers were forced to pay at least $5,460 for Alan’s incarceration costs.

He lost his job and his family faced eviction, because paying rent was impossible without his income. Alan’s guilty plea also made it more difficult for him to find a new job.

If he had been released without bond, taxpayers would have endured community supervision costs of just $105 (1.9 percent of his incarceration costs), and he would have been able to keep his job, pay his rent and care for his family. Approximately 35,000 defendants are detained in Baltimore’s jail system annually, according to the PJI report.

Like virtually every other aspect of the criminal justice system, this problem “perpetuates cycles of poverty for some communities and disproportionately impacts communities and families of color,” the report found. That was highlighted by a stunning real-life Baltimore example.

In 2008, Demorrea Tarver was arrested on a drug possession charge and his bond was set at $275,000. His mother paid a bondsman a $5,000 down payment on the $27,000 non-refundable bond premium. The charges were dropped a week later, but the Tarvers were still required to pay the bondsman $300 per month. When they were unable to make those payments the case was referred to collections. Demorrea Tarver now pays $100 per month, which is less than the interest that accrues on the debt – so he will never be able to pay off his bail bond debt. And that is just one example of the negative impact of money-based pretrial detention systems.

“It has been estimated that implementing validated, evidence-based risk assessment to guide pretrial release decisions could yield $78 billion in savings and benefits, nationally,” the report concluded.

Approximately 11 million people are booked into local jails each year in the United States, according the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Sources: “Pretrial Justice: How Much Does it Cost?” Pretrial Justice Institute (Jan. 2017);;

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