The True Cost of Mass Incarceration Exceeds $1 Trillion


In recent years, the bipartisan push for criminal justice reform has been fueled in large part by the astronomical price tag that comes with mass incarceration. Locking people up in federal, state, and local correctional facilities costs the government a whopping $80 billion, and taxpayers end up footing the bill. But a Washington University study released in July projects that the price tag touted by advocates of reform is a mere fraction of the actual cost of mass incarceration.

When the financial toll on social welfare is taken into account, the working paper estimated the cost of mass incarceration exceeds $1 trillion.

According to researchers Carrie Pettus-Davis and Michael McLaughlin, the incarcerated population misses out on $70.5 billion in lost wages. While previous studies show that former prisoners less likely to be hired, and make significantly less money than their colleagues when they do secure jobs, Pettus-Davis and McLaughlin concluded that reduced wages add up to $230 billion in lost earnings.

Families who have loved ones in prison also shoulder the financial load. The amount of time it takes people to visit their family members, instead of working, results in $1 billion of lost revenue, researchers found. Relatives spend an exorbitant amount of money traveling to and from correctional facilities, and communicating with prisoners from afar. Consequently, families incur $5 billion of so-called “criminal justice debt,” annually, and pay $513 million a year.

The correctional system also costs hundreds of billions of dollars in future crime.

Prisons and jails “[reinforce] behavior and survival strategies that are manipulative outside the prison environment,” according to the paper, so people who are released back into society tend to fall back into criminal activity. That “criminogenic nature of prison” costs society $285.8 billion. Children, who are also more likely to end up in the criminal justice system if a parent has done time, generate another $131 billion in criminality costs.

Homelessness among former prisoners, eviction rates due to lost income, and the mental and physical health of prisoners and their family members also lead to billions in taxpayer money and lost revenue.

While the body of research about the costs of prison and jails is robust — and growing — Pettus-Davis and McLaughlin are the first researchers ever to give an estimate that accounts for the total societal cost of mass incarceration.

“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs,” Pettus-Davis told The Source. “More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime.”

Ultimately, the social cost of mass incarceration is 11 times higher than total spent on the corrections system itself.

“This is important because it suggests that the true cost of incarceration has been grossly underestimated, perhaps resulting in a level of incarceration beyond that which is socially optimal,” the report concluded.


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Carimah Townes is the Criminal Justice Reporter for ThinkProgress. She received a B.A. in political science from UCLA, where she also minored in cultural anthropology. While in school, she served as a festival planner and interned with the Office of Mayor Villaraigosa. Before joining ThinkProgress, she worked for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and interned with the Communications and Development teams at Vital Voices Global Partnership. Carimah is originally from Amherst, Massachusetts.