New Report Reveals Enormous Hidden Price of Jails

New York, NY – Hidden costs make jails far more expensive than previously understood, according to a new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration. Because other government agencies, whose expenditures are not reflected in jail budgets, bear a large share of costs, the report finds that Americans significantly underestimate how much of their tax dollars are being spent on incarceration.

While the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $22.2 billion on jails in 2011, that figure fails to take into account significant costs such as employee benefits and inmate medical care that may not be included in jail budgets. For example, in addition to the $1.1 billion spent by the City of New York Department of Corrections in 2014, other agencies spent $1.3 billion on jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration, bringing the total cost to $2.4 billion—more than double the official jail budget.

“A look at who is currently in jail, and why, makes it clear that, after decades of rising numbers of people incarcerated, the costs of jail surely outweigh the benefits,” said Vera President Nicholas Turner. “Many local governments are now looking at how they too can help solve the problem of mass incarceration. And it is at this local level that there is a chance to make good on the oft-told promise of community reinvestment.”

Despite growing national attention to the large number of Americans confined in state and federal prisons, significantly less attention has been paid to local criminal justice systems, where over-incarceration begins. There are nearly 12 million local jail admissions every year—almost 20 times the number of prison admissions, and equivalent to the populations of Los Angeles and New York City combined. The report found that the high cost of jails is most directly tied to inmate population and associated personnel costs, rather than to misspent funds in any one particular budget area.

The report’s findings are based on surveys of 35 jail systems, representing small, medium, and large jails in 18 states from every region of the country, and representing 9% of the total jail population. The survey results confirm that determining the total cost of a jail is not a simple task, even for the agency that runs it. In documenting jail expenses—which in every case surveyed extended beyond the reported corrections budget—and who pays for them, the report finds that, by and large, local taxpayers foot the bill for jails, and the costs are much higher than most people realize.

“Jails are a tremendous public cost,” said Julia Stasch, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which supported the report. “This new report proves those costs are even higher than previously thought, adding urgency to the need for reform that addresses their overuse and misuse in fiscally strapped jurisdictions nationwide.”

In addition to developing a first-of-its-kind survey for jurisdictions to use that accurately measures all of the costs of running a jail, the report reveals:

  • Hidden jail costs typically fall into six categories: employee benefits, inmate health care, capital costs, administrative costs, legal costs, and inmate services.
  • The largest jail costs are those associated with personnel. Because these expenses are driven by jail population, jurisdictions that wish to lower their costs must take steps to reduce the number of people in jail.
  • Cuts to inmate programs and administrative costs have a relatively small impact on jail spending, because they don’t affect personnel.
  • Fees charged to inmates for phone calls, purchases, and medical services can be considerable for incarcerated people and often leave them in debt, but this inmate-generated revenue only recoups an average of 3% of jail spending.

The report, supported by the MacArthur Foundation, is a part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a new initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. Through the Challenge, the Foundation will make an initial five-year $75 million investment in local systems reform, research, experimentation, and communications in an effort to reduce over-incarceration in America. On May 27, the Foundation will announce twenty jurisdictions selected to receive support through the Challenge for efforts improve their local justice systems.

For the full report, including detailed information about each surveyed jurisdiction, please


About the MacArthur Foundation The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology affects children and society. More information about the Foundation’s work, including in the justice field, is available

About the Vera Institute of Justice The Vera Institute of Justice is a research and policy organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.