28 Dec Annual Prison Costs Going Into 2023
As we head into 2023, annual prison costs have reached their highest levels yet. Just search “annual prison costs 2023” on Google, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. In Georgia, for example, the annual prison costs budget for 2023 falls at almost $1.5 billion once you include the money allotted for new prisons across the state. Similarly, Texas’s annual prison budget is so bloated that the state’s governor was able to use almost $400 million from it for “Operation Lone Star,” a border-security idea that has nothing to do with prisons.
Some might be inclined to write this off as par for the course in “red states” — after all, “red states” have some of the highest incarceration rates in the country and even the world — but it’s true across the country. In fact, in Michigan, a reliably “purple state,” lawmakers allocated and the governor approved a $2.1 billion budget for the Michigan Department of Corrections for the upcoming year. And, of course, high-population states like New York and California have enormous multi-billion budgets for their states prison systems, too.
Long story short, the entire country spends tens of billions of dollars every year on prisons. Literally. The Bureau of Justice Statistics puts that number at around $81 billion. But that alarmingly high figure doesn’t take into account the necessarily intertwined costs that come with the justice system and legal proceedings, policing expenses and the costs that come with things like telephone calls (for both the government and the families). When all of those other costs are factored in, Prison Policy Initiative estimates the final cost to be closer to $182 billion every year.
So, what are we getting for that much money?
We’re not getting less crime.
The first thing you’d expect that we’d get in exchange for paying roughly $182 billion in annual prison costs in 2023 is safety or, put another way, less crime. We’re not getting that. Although it’s true that reports of violent crime have plummeted since the early 1990s, it’s also true that reports of violent crime have remained about the same (or even marginally increased) over the past decade. (It’s worth emphasizing the fact that a majority of Americans still believe that violent crime is at a historically high rate even though it isn’t.)
The fact that violent crime is remaining steady (or even marginally rising) over the past decade across the U.S. at the same time annual prison costs have skyrocketed raises questions on its own. But, again, skeptics could discount the connection between the two if the violent crime was taking place in states with lower incarceration rates. The problem is that the opposite is true.
According to Prison Policy Initiative, states in the south and southeast parts of the U.S. have the highest incarceration rates in the country (and in the world). Specifically, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Arizona, Wyoming and Texas make up the top ten incarceration rates in the U.S. and would also have the ten highest incarceration rates in the world if they were countries. Interestingly, several of those states — Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas — also have the highest crime rates in the U.S. In fact, according to USAFacts, “[b]oth property crime and violent crime were 22% higher in these states than the national average.”
We’re not getting rehabilitation.
So if we’re not seeing crime rates go down as a result of the skyrocketing annual prison costs going into 2023, you’d at least expect prisons to have some sort of track record of rehabilitation. While various groups and agencies might define the term “rehabilitation” differently, the general idea reducing recidivism. In other words, rehabilitation focuses on reducing the likelihood that someone in prison will commit a crime in the future. The Crime Museum puts it like this: “The basic idea of rehabilitation through imprisonment is that a person who has been incarcerated will never want to be sent back to prison after they have been set free.”
All prisons purport to include some form of rehabilitation. But when it comes to costs, effective rehabilitation seems hard to find. At the federal level, U.S. taxpayers likely spend just north of $40,000 per year to incarcerate someone in a federal prison. Based on data from Vera, Interrogating Justice’s Ronnie K. Stephens estimates that number to range between $14,000 and $70,000 in most states. Using the federal number, taxpayers are still paying more than $100 per day. Surely that $100+-per-day spending has a demonstrated track record when it comes to rehabilitation, right?
“Unfortunately,” as the Crime Museum puts it, “research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not successfully rehabilitate most inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime almost immediately.” In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, prisons in the U.S. deliberately turned away from rehabilitation in the mid-1970s as the country turned to a “tough on crime” approach that focused on punishment instead. “The approach has created explosive growth in the prison population,” the APA explains, “while having at most a modest effect on crime rates.”
We’re not even getting progress.
As annual prison costs continue to rise going into 2023, it’s fair to ask what we, as American taxpayers, are getting in exchange for our money? Objectively, we know the answer isn’t less crime. As incarceration rates have exploded over the past decade, violent crime rates have largely stayed the same. While not as objective, we can also confidently say the answer isn’t rehabilitation. Research consistently shows that time behind bars doesn’t reduce recidivism. So, what is it exactly that we are getting? It seems like no one really knows.
Back in 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research published an article by Gordon B. Dahl and Magne Mogstad on the benefits of rehabilitative incarceration. The article generically claimed that “[t]ime spent in prison can deter offenders from future crime or rehabilitate offenders by providing vocational training or wellness programs.” But, in the very next sentence, the authors recognized that “incarceration can also lead to recidivism and unemployment due to human capital depreciation, exposure to hardened criminals, or societal and workplace stigma,” as well as that it “can also have effects beyond those on the offenders themselves, with spillovers to other family members or the offenders’ criminal networks.”
That seems to be the best answer anyone can come up with. Incarceration might deter other criminals or help prevent you from committing crimes after your release. But it also might crush you and your family financially, leading to more criminal activity. And it can also connect you with hardened criminals and criminal networks, making a lifetime of crime even more possible. That’s not a very compelling sales pitch for something that costs $182 billion per year.