The Price of Prisons Examining State Spending Trends, 2010 - 2015

From the Director

In 2012, Vera's Center on Sentencing and Corrections published The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers, to answer a simple, yet important, question: what is the cost of prison? This report provided critical information, because budgetary considerations are often central to public policy debate. But the landscape of corrections has changed considerably in recent years. After the collective state prison population peaked at 1,407,369 at the end of 2009, it has since declined by 5 percent. While this may not seem like a lot in relative terms, it amounts to more than 77,000 fewer people in prison—a number that exceeds the average daily population of the prison systems in New York (53,181), Georgia (46,145), and Ohio (50,452). 

So this begs a new question: if prison populations are falling, are states consequently saving any money? It turns out that many are. Vera researchers found that while states have confronted rising costs for employee salaries and benefits, total prison costs declined by $232 million nationwide, which largely can be attributed to smaller prison populations. 

Despite this aggregate trend, however, there is wide variation among states in both prison population and spending. In 2015, out of the 45 states who completed Vera’s survey, 20 spent less on prisons than in 2010, but in the 25 other states spending increased. This was a result of higher prison populations in 15 states and an increase in spending—in many states—for expenses such as staffing costs and prison health care. 

Although rising pension costs and political resistance to prison closures in some states prevented savings even when correctional populations declined, more than half of states with declining prison populations are making good on the promise of smaller prison budgets as well. Since 2010, 23 states have reduced the size of their prison populations. Vera’s research found that 13 of these states have saved considerably in taxpayer money—$1.6 billion—at the same time. While simultaneously downsizing prison populations and spending is easier said than done, these 13 states prove that it is indeed possible. For those who are up to the challenge, this report makes it plain that a large sum of money is on the table.

President's Signature

Christian Henrichson

Director, Vera Insights