Until the economic downturn that started in 2008, few people outside of policy and media circles paid attention to the true costs of criminal justice. Overall, the country seemed to place more emphasis on lowering crime rates and fighting the “War on Drugs” rather than paying attention to the inflating costs of incarceration.

To some degree, the recession and sluggish recovery afterward has increased awareness over where tax dollars are going, especially with mounting concern over the repercussions of a continually growing national debt. This has channeled some attention toward criminal justice expenditures, but few mainstream Americans still grasp the real costs of incarcerating so many people across the country.


Higher Incarceration, Higher Taxes

In 2008, the U.S. spent about $75 billion on corrections, with most of it going toward incarceration expenditures. That same year, 2.3 million people were inmates in either U.S. jails or prisons. This means that 753 of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, one of the highest rates in the world—especially among developed nations.

The burden of such high incarceration rates falls primarily on taxpayers, both in federal and state taxes. State budgets have been particularly strained by high criminal justice spending, especially due to the fact that between 1988 and 2008, there was a $40 billion increase in state spending on corrections. Naturally, this has resulted in higher taxes or cuts in other programs to make way for larger prisons and more prisoners.

Fundamental changes have occurred in how justice is administered since 1980. Since that time, the U.S. has launched a costly “War on Drugs,” which besides altering how policing works, has also resulted in many more nonviolent offenders entering the criminal justice system.

Additionally, many states have enacted laws that make it easier to lock up nonviolent offenders, including “three-strike” laws, and communities have supported judges who are “tough on crime.” The confluence of these changes has resulted in a swelling of prison populations and overall spending on prisons. Since 1980, prison populations have grown by 240 percent. This is the result of the aforementioned policies, as the general U.S. population only grew by 33 percent in those years and there was only a marginal increase of 3 percent in violent crime between 1980 and 2008.

This huge increase in incarceration rates has burdened state and federal budgets. Although it has resulted in a small increase in criminal justice-associated jobs, states have had to cut valuable programs—usually those that benefit the poor—from their budgets. Some of these programs, such as welfare and education assistance, had helped to reduce crime. Reducing funding for these programs thus exacerbates the problem and results in more nonviolent offenses.

The Long-Term Impact of Spending

Economists have argued that the rate of spending increases on criminal justice is simply unsustainable, and that it will eventually sink state government budgets and result in huge tax increases. As a result, critics have focused on finding ways to create savings in the criminal justice system without impacting public safety.

Many critics focus their attention on the nonviolent inmate population. These individuals tend to enter prison due to drug offenses or several misdemeanor violations. Having several minor offenses can result in jail time if the judge is purposefully being “tough on crime” or the state has some form of “three strike” system. If it were more difficult for judges to sentence nonviolent offenders to jail time, then it would dramatically decrease prison populations. Similarly, if the law approached drug possession more as a substance abuse problem rather than a criminal problem, much could be done to decrease the number of people in prisons.

Such a reduction would have real budgetary implications. In fact, if the population of nonviolent offenders in prison or jail were reduced by 50 percent, it would save states about $16.9 billion per year. That’s a large sum of money that could be used to lower taxes or fund important preventative programs aimed at lowering drug abuse and nonviolent crime rates.

Reforming how justice is administered to nonviolent offenders is just one of many reform ideas that critics have posed in recent years. As the public becomes increasingly aware of the true costs of incarceration and the incredible rates at which Americans are ending up behind bars, there is ample opportunity for significant reform in the criminal justice system.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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