Over $180 billion a year spent on mass incarceration

Half the money spent on running the correctional system goes to pay staff

By Charles David Henry

The system of mass incarceration costs the government and families at least $182 billion every year, according to a report by the Prison Policy Institute.

“Our goal with this report is to give a hint as to how the criminal justice system works by identifying some of the key stakeholders and quantifying their ‘stake’ in the status quo,” reported the authors, Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy.

The report revealed that half of the money spent on running the correctional system goes toward paying staff. This group is an influential lobby that sometimes prevents reform and whose influence and jobs are often protected even when prison populations drop.

According to the report

– Private prison companies act as extensions of the public system. The government payroll for corrections employees is more than 100 times higher than the private prison industry’s profits.

– The U.S. Constitution requires counsel to be appointed for defendants unable to afford legal representation, but the system only spends $4.5 billion funding this right. Over the last decade, states have been reducing this figure even as caseloads have grown.

– Private companies that supply goods to the prison commissary or provide telephone service for correctional facilities reap profits ($2.9 billion) — almost as much as governments pay private companies ($3.9 billion) to operate private prisons.

– Feeding and providing health care for 2.3 million incarcerated people — representing a population larger than that of 15 different states — is expensive.

Below are some lesser-known players in the system of mass incarceration:

– Bail bond companies collect $1.4 billion in nonrefundable fees from defendants and their families. The industry actively works to block reforms that threaten its profits, even if reforms could prevent people from being detained in jail because of their poverty.

– Specialized phone companies monopolize contracts and charge families up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.

– Commissary vendors sell goods to incarcerated people who rely largely on money sent by family and friends, but some from in-prison jobs. This industry brings in $1.6 billion a year.

The report shows the criminal justice fines and fees can be substantial. In at least 38 towns and cities in the U.S., more than 10 percent of all public revenue is court fines and fees. In St. Louis County, five towns generated more than 40 percent of their annual revenue from court fines and fees in 2013.   

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports the combined total of federal, state and local expenditures on the judicial and legal system was $57.9 billion in 2012. Since these figures include both criminal and civil law aspects of the court system, reporters estimated that 50 percent of court expenditures were criminal law related. After further investigation, the report adjusted this figure to $29 billion as criminal law related.

With emphasis on the disparate impact on women and the poor, the report illustrates the extreme financial burden and emotional strain caused by incarceration: families, not defendants, typically pay for court-related costs, phone calls and visitation, and continue to support people upon their release, the report comments.


  • Deborah

    I spent $500 for a month of phone calls to a county jail and it was for a local phone number. I don’t think the public is aware of how much the companies that have these contracts are ripping people off.


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