Though the U.S. population accounts for only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, its prisons held 22 percent of the world’s prisoners at the end of October 2013, making America’s incarceration rate the highest in the world.
And while the cost of today’s federal prisons has surpassed the Federal Bureau Of Prisons’ $6.85 billion budget, state prisons are not far behind. With “[s]tate corrections budgets … nearly [quadrupling] in the past two decades,” Vera Institute of Justice notes, each average inmate now costs taxpayers over $31,000 per year. In 2010 alone, states spent over $5.4 billion on maintaining their prisons.
But while we know everything about government’s prison budgets, few reports shed light on the hidden costs of high incarceration rates.
In order to help the U.S. population understand what mass incarceration means to smaller communities, Washington University in St. Louis conducted a study entitled “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” led by doctoral student and certified public accountant Michael McLaughlin.
According to the study, for “every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another 10 dollars of other types of costs to families, children and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget.”
Researchers concluded the “annual economic burden” resulting from the high rate of incarceration in America is an estimated $1.2 trillion, or nearly 6 percent of the GDP. This burden is also eleven times higher than what governments take from taxpayers to support state and federal prisons.
From the study:
“The $80 billion spent annually on corrections has been cited as the cost of incarceration. However, a growing body of research suggests the true cost of incarceration far exceeds the amount spent on corrections. This is because corrections spending ignores costs borne by incarcerated persons, families, children, and communities.”
According to researchers, the wages prisoners could have earned average “$23,286 ($33,066 in 2014 dollars) in lost productivity” each year, yielding $24.6 billion in lost wages nationwide.
But other costs were also considered, such as the cost of nonfatal injuries prisoners sustain while incarcerated.
At least 3.2 percent of jail inmates and 4 percent of both state and federal prison inmates were sexually abused in 2014, prompting local, state, and federal governments to provide victims with medical care. Throughout the year, the 86,288 incidents cost taxpayers $324,690.
The study also suggests that, over time, mass incarceration leads to yet another unwanted effect that’s adding to the prison system’s high cost: high mortality rates.
“The mortality rate of formerly incarcerated persons is 3.5 times higher than that of people who have not been incarcerated,” the study explains. Each year, the study suggests, about 7,230 premature deaths can be linked back to the high mortality rates among former prisoners, which leads to a $62.6 billion loss in lifelong wages.
Other costs to family members are also hidden, such as travel and moving costs.
According to the study, 700,000 families in America now have at least one incarcerated family member. Considering that at least one member visits their incarcerated loved one once a month, researchers found that, each year, $0.8 billion is spent on these trips.
But as families lose wages due to incarceration, two other costs enter the picture: moving and eviction costs.
On average, families spend $0.5 billion each year to change residencies after an arrest, while many others lose their homes due to the loss of income. According to the report, evictions may occur when families lose a loved one to the prison system or when a former convict is released. Because many former inmates have difficulties finding a job, they are more likely to lose their residences.
Since the average cost of an eviction is $1,635, “the total incarceration-related cost is $0.2 billion.”
Other factors that end up costing families and communities include the increased risk of divorce, which costs $17.7 billion, and the loss of income and education to children whose parents are incarcerated, leading to a total loss of $166.6 billion.
According to McLaughlin, this study helps to prove that “the marginal cost of incarcerating an additional individual exceeds the marginal benefit.”
Considering non-violent offenders who broke immigration or drug laws make up 60 percent of the U.S. prison population, it’s safe to say the true costs of the broken U.S. drug and immigration law codes are far too high.