America’s Big, Expensive Correctional System: A Look at the Numbers

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Everyone knows that the American penal system is imperfect — one might even go so far as to say deeply flawed. This is perhaps a reflection of the size and demand of the U.S. incarceration rate. With such an enormous beast of a system to contend with, things are bound to be imperfect, given how ill prepared most administrative machinery is. Just how big is the U.S. penal system, and how much does it cost to run it? The answer is, unsurprisingly, that the U.S. prison population is huge, and that it costs — you guessed it — quite a lot.

In 2008 The New York Times pointed out that the U.S. population represented only 5 percent of the global population, but that it holds nearly 25 percent of the total world prison population. The most recent stats offered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics puts the number of individuals in the adult correctional system at 6.9 million by the end of 2012. 2008 put the prison population at 1.6 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and in 2011 the U.S. still had the highest prison population in the world, with half of the total world prison population made up for by the U.S., Russia, and China alone — according to a report from the International Centre for Prison Studies.

The U.S. rate of incarceration is over six times the normal OECD nation’s rate, according to a Hamilton Project Crime and Incarceration policy memo published in May 2014. There have been some slight decreases over the last few years in incarceration numbers but the overall trend since the 1980s has been major increases, driven by three items, according to the study, “crime rates, the number of prison sentences per number of crimes committed, and expected time served in prison among those sentenced,” as well as by a number of policy changes — as shown in the studies table shown below.


The study also pointed out that increases seen recently have been in federal prisons, with a 4 percent decrease of state inmates in 2012, but an 8 percent increase in federal incarcerations, attributed to immigration related imprisonment. Despite the fact that crime rates have decreased steadily over the last 25 years, it remains that the U.S. prison population is at a size such that it constitutes a considerable expense. Which brings us to the cumulative cost that a prison population of our size incurs.

According to the Hamilton report, U.S. taxpayers have seen a major increase in how much they pay for the U.S. correctional system, up at $260 a year in 2010, compared to $77 payed in 1980. An overall, the U.S. spent $80 billion to cover state, federal, and local needs in 2010. “Total corrections expenditures more than quadrupled over the past twenty years in real terms, from approximately $17 billion in 1980 to more than $80 billion in 2010,” reads the report, as  shown in the table below.

The report also touches on the issue of how non-violent crime should be dealt with, noting the argument that it might be more fiscally reasonable to reduce the number of non-violent criminals kept in the penal system.

For every prisoner there are costs and benefits to incarceration,” said Ben Harris, who co-authored the report, to CBS. “For someone who has committed a violent offense, we as a society can agree it’s worth putting this person in prison,” he said, but explained “putting a person in prison to reduce the chance they will commit a low-level crime, such as dealing a small amount of drugs, the benefits aren’t as obvious.”

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