In spring of 2016, Vera designed a survey of state prison expenditures that was modeled on the 2012 Price of Prisons survey. (Unlike the 2012 survey, this new survey did not collect data to estimate the future cost of underfunded liabilities to employee retirement programs, because the research objective was to measure how states have changed what they spend on prison each year.) 

The 2016 survey was pre-tested in three states and collected data on the number of prison facilities, prison employees, incarcerated people under state jurisdiction, and prison expenditures both paid for by the department of corrections and paid for by other state agencies in fiscal years 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015, including expenditures funded by all revenue sources.10 This survey was distributed to every state’s department of corrections in May 2016. Corrections departments in 45 states completed and returned the survey. Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Wyoming did not complete a survey. Vera’s analysis focuses on 2010 and 2015 because many states could not provide comprehensive and comparable data for the years 2000 and 2005. Vera also conducted follow-up interviews with state prison budget officials in over half of the surveyed states to better understand state spending and population trends. 

All tables in this report are adjusted to fiscal year 2015 dollars using the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ price deflator for gross domestic product.11

Costs in context: Vera research on prison and jail costs

Previous Vera reports have examined prison and jail spending. Realigning Justice Resources, published in 2012 during the recovery to the Great Recession, compared spending and population size in state prisons and community corrections between 2006 and 2010, finding that there is not always a clear relationship between population and spending shifts from one part of a state’s criminal justice system to another. Vera’s The Price of Prisons, also published in 2012, sought to uncover the “true” cost of prisons, including state spending on prisons from state agencies other than the department of corrections. That report found that those costs are usually undercounted in official reports and are often substantial. Vera’s Price of Jails, published in 2015, had similar findings regarding spending at the local level. This report builds on Vera's prior efforts to evaluate trends in state prison expenditures and in particular to uncover what has changed since 2010.