Trends in prison population and spending: 2010 - 2015

Policymakers and other advocates for reform have assumed that a direct relationship exists between a prison’s population and spending in a corrections budget; specifically the belief persists that a decline in prison population should necessarily register a decline in spending. Vera sought to test this theory by tracking changes in prison population against changes in prison spending between 2010 and 2015. According to the Vera survey, 20 out of 45 responding states managed to decrease their spending, and 13 of these 20 states achieved the hoped-for result of twin reductions in population and spending—many because they were able to close facilities and reduce the number of employees. In these 13 states, spending declined by a total of $1.6 billion, and the prison population declined by a total of 31,090 people between 2010 and 2015 (see Table 3 on page 14). There is often concern that reducing a state’s prison population will result in increasing crime. Yet the crime rate in these 13 states also declined—with most states experiencing a double-digit drop over the same period.17 However, 25 out of 45 states increased spending, some despite reducing their population—either because they did not take steps to downsize their workforce or the savings they attained through population reductions were washed out by other rising costs.

Interviews with corrections administrators revealed that there were certain factors that resulted in larger cost reductions than others, while other factors surfaced limitations of certain cost–cutting measures. 

How states saved money in prison spending

By reducing the workforce in lockstep with the number of incarcerated people, states can reduce employment costs while maintaining their staffing ratio. For example, in New York, annual prison spending declined by $302 million between 2010 and 2015, a decrease of 8 percent. Changes in law enforcement practices and the number of people sentenced to prison from New York City—where many people admitted to state prison come from—have helped reduce the prison population by 6,000 people since 2010 (a 10 percent decrease).18 Since 2010, the state has also closed 14 prisons and has reduced its prison employment by 11 percent. Costs have decreased with fewer employees, incarcerated people, and prisons to operate, despite the fact that other factors, such as contracted salary increases and rising health care expenditures, especially for Hepatitis C drugs, are creating cost pressures.19 

Similarly, in New Jersey annual prison spending declined by $159 million (or 11 percent) between 2010 and 2015, as the result of an expansion in the use of diversion programs, such as drug courts, and increased rates of parole. Concurrently, the number of prison employees declined by 8 percent through attrition and not filling vacancies. Despite increases in spending on employee benefits, the decline in spending on salaries, overtime, and boarding payments to local jails have meant an overall decrease in prison expenditures.20 

In 2010, South Carolina enacted broad-based criminal justice reform to reduce the number of people sent to prison for failing to follow supervision conditions while on probation or parole (such as missing an appointment or failing a drug test), and stem the tide of people incarcerated for low-level offenses—at the time, these people made up the majority of South Carolina’s prison population.21 The new law restructured the criminal code to ensure that prison space is focused on people convicted of the most serious crimes, while making community-based sanctions more widely available.22 It also authorized the use of administrative sanctions, rather than prison, for people who violate their supervision conditions.23 

Put together, the new law has helped reduce the prison population by 12 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2015—a decline that has been driven by a 36 percent reduction in admissions for nonviolent offenses and a 46 percent decline in the number of people who have been admitted to prison because of a parole or probation violation.24 Changes in supervision practices have also improved probation and parole success rates, meaning that fewer people are returning to prison for violating supervision conditions.25 This has helped reduce spending by $11 million over the same period. Population reduction also made it possible for the state to close three minimum-security prisons between 2012 and 2015.26

In Michigan, annual prison spending declined by $221 million (or 12 percent) between 2010 and 2015, and the state was able to close several prison facilities and consolidate others because of a variety of policies that have helped keep the prison population down—including those that have kept probationers and parolees from being sent to prison for a violation of their terms of supervision, and sentencing policies that have kept more people in the community.27 Significantly, this has also allowed the Michigan Department of Corrections to reduce their number of employees. In mid-2011 the state closed the Florence Crane Correctional Facility and moved the 1,056 incarcerated people to vacancies in other facilities around the
state. The state reported that the cost to operate the facility was $27 million per year.28 While the state selected this facility for closure partially based on proximity to other prison facilities that might offer staff employment, there were some staff reductions as a result of the closing.29

State prison spending per state resident, 2015

StateState Residents Prison expenditures Incarceration rate (per 100,000 state residents)Cost per state resident
Alabama 4,853,875 $466,488,094 650 $96
Alaska 737,709 $316,323,123 815 $429
Arizona 6,817,565 $1,069,998,638 618 $157
Arkansas 2,977,853 $371,968,841 597 $125
California 38,993,940 $8,596,902,049 341 $220
Colorado 5,448,819 $709,581,867 331 $130
Connecticut 3,584,730 $1,016,118,399 456 $283
Delaware 944,076 $266,293,532 722 $282
Florida 20,244,914 $1,917,735,951 497 $95
Georgia 10,199,398 $921,844,210 452 $90
Hawaii 1,425,157 $178,406,163 425 $125
Idaho 1,652,828 $180,115,744 491 $109
Illinois 12,839,047 $1,595,647,075 371 $124
Indiana 6,612,768 $517,678,909 433 $78
Iowa 3,121,997 $310,634,762 262 $99
Kansas 2,906,721 $237,682,123 334 $82
Kentucky 4,424,611 $351,336,792 476 $79
Louisiana 4,668,960 $622,350,856 820 $133
Maryland 5,994,983 $1,071,682,231 401 $179
Massachusetts 6,784,240 $594,295,857 159 $88
Michigan 9,917,715 $1,553,213,339 437 $157
Minnesota 5,482,435 $403,729,705 178 $74
Missouri 6,076,204 $716,287,058 531 $118
Montana 1,032,073 $95,125,223 274 $92
Nevada 2,883,758 $243,935,441 474 $85
New Jersey 8,935,421 $1,354,767,292 246 $152
New Mexico 2,080,328 $263,976,999 345 $127
New York 19,747,183 $3,688,356,319 269 $187
North Carolina 10,035,186 $1,118,669,204 369 $111
North Dakota 756,835 $65,467,993 224 $87
Ohio 11,605,090 $1,337,453,060 435 $115
Oklahoma 3,907,414 $451,501,686 700 $116
Oregon 4,024,634 $639,974,399 361 $159
Pennsylvania 12,791,904 $2,151,980,000 394 $168
Rhode Island 1,055,607 $186,349,078 301 $177
South Carolina 4,894,834 $436,615,085 445 $89
South Dakota 857,919 $73,122,593 411 $85
Tennessee 6,595,056 $723,680,760 468 $110
Texas 27,429,639 $3,283,213,997 544 $120
Utah 2,990,632 $152,778,962 231 $51
Vermont 626,088 $116,727,820 324 $186
Virginia 8,367,587 $824,010,613 462 $98
Washington 7,160,290 $632,557,822 233 $88
West Virginia 1,841,053 $188,966,523 374 $103
Wisconsin 5,767,891 $867,991,403 389 $150
TOTAL (45 states) 312,096,967 $42,883,537,590 413 $137
Source: Vera state prison expenditure survey and U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016.
Savings without a reduced population

In seven states, spending declined even as the prison population grew. For example, despite passing reform legislation in 2012 to slow prison growth, the prison population of Oklahoma increased by 6 percent. However, Oklahoma has had to make spending cuts elsewhere due to the state budget shortfall, and has cut overall spending on its prisons by lowering corrections employment by 14 percent.30 In Nevada, the prison population increased by 8 percent between 2010 and 2015. Yet total spending on prisons declined by 15 percent over the same period. The drop in spending was driven by a 4 percent decline in the number of prison employees, a state policy requiring state employees to take one unpaid furlough day per month, and a decline in spending on all employee fringe benefits.31 Because of these cuts, these states have fewer resources to meet the demands of facilities with growing populations. In particular, a lower inmate-to-officer staffing ratio can impact facility safety and effectiveness.

How states estimate potential savings

The average annual cost per inmate was $33,274 in 2015. But as prison administrators are quick to note, reducing the prison population by one person does not result in $33,274 in savings. This is because the average cost includes many fixed costs such as administrative services and facility maintenance, which do not change when the population decreases. Instead, when the population decreases by one person, a state will save money on variable costs, which include things like food, clothing, laundry, and—in some states—a per-diem payment to the prison health care provider. If the state prison population drops by a sufficient threshold, the state may be able to close a housing unit or a prison facility. This means they can reduce step-fixed costs, which include the salaries and benefits attendant to the former employees of closed units and facilities.

Because the average cost cannot be used to estimate prison savings, many states calculate a prison marginal cost, the change in costs when the prison population declines by one person. For example, South Carolina reports that the annual marginal cost is $3,747 per inmate (the average cost is $20,053) and New York reports that its annual marginal cost is $18,706 per inmate (the average cost is $69,355).a Importantly, the marginal cost is always smaller than the average cost and generally found to be less than half the value of the average cost. 

See the Vera report A Guide to Calculating Justice-System Marginal Costs for more information.

a. South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, Report to the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee, November 2015. Marc Schabses, Cost Benefit Analysis for Criminal Justice Deployment and Initial Application of the Results First Cost Benefit Model (Albany, NY: New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, 2013).

State prison population and expenditures, 2010-2015

StatePrison population, 2010Prison population, 2015Change in prison population, 2010-2015Prison expenditures, 2010 (inflation-adjusted to 2015 dollars)Prison expenditures, 2015 Change in prison expenditures, 2010-2015
Alabama 31,873 31,563 -1.0% $482,710,817 $466,488,094 -3.4%
Alaska 5,461 6,010 10.1% $279,939,651 $316,323,123 13.0%
Arizona 40,458 42,131 4.1% $1,058,588,444 $1,069,998,638 1.1%
Arkansas 14,800 17,785 20.2% $346,075,666 $371,968,841 7.5%
California 168,044 132,992 -20.9% $8,036,681,801 $8,596,902,049 7.0%
Colorado 19,738 18,054 -8.5% $709,439,344 $709,581,867 0.0%*
Connecticut 18,492 16,347 -11.6% $939,046,471 $1,016,118,399 8.2%
Delaware 6,710 6,814 1.5% $250,180,697 $266,293,532 6.4%
Florida 101,324 100,567 -0.7% $2,175,001,882 $1,917,735,951 -11.8%
Georgia 49,250 46,145 -6.3% $937,934,701 $921,844,210 -1.7%
Hawaii 6,291 6,063 -3.6% $168,911,005 $178,406,163 5.6%
Idaho 7,495 8,120 8.3% $152,219,154 $180,115,744 18.3%
Illinois 44,979 47,622 5.9% $1,325,688,698 $1,595,647,075 20.4%
Indiana 28,332 28,656 1.1% $578,737,303 $517,678,909 -10.6%
Iowa 8,384 8,195 -2.3% $298,477,658 $310,634,762 4.1%
Kansas 8,689 9,697 11.6% $233,231,736 $237,682,123 1.9%
Kentucky 20,443 21,062 3.0% $369,125,775 $351,336,792 -4.8%
Louisiana 39,939 38,296 -4.1% $667,693,269 $622,350,856 -6.8%
Maryland 25,259 24,028 -4.9% $1,102,632,491 $1,071,682,231 -2.8%
Massachusetts 11,478 10,772 -6.2% $575,908,502 $594,295,857 3.2%
Michigan 45,241 43,375 -4.1% $1,773,912,932 $1,553,213,339 -12.4%
Minnesota 9,374 9,760 4.1% $391,387,179 $403,729,705 3.2%
Missouri 30,418 32,284 6.1% $727,452,301 $716,287,058 -1.5%
Montana 2,595 2,833 9.2% $84,262,869 $95,125,223 12.9%
Nevada 12,619 13,665 8.3% $285,827,951 $243,935,441 -14.7%
New Jersey 25,822 21,992 -14.8% $1,514,062,321 $1,354,767,292 -10.5%
New Mexico 6,538 7,167 9.6% $274,309,692 $263,976,999 -3.8%
New York 59,237 53,181 -10.2% $3,990,824,975 $3,688,356,319 -7.6%
North Carolina 40,203 37,066 -7.8% $1,194,046,296 $1,118,669,204 -6.3%
North Dakota 1,479 1,696 14.7% $61,217,368 $65,467,993 6.9%
Ohio 50,960 50,452 -1.0% $1,534,239,950 $1,337,453,060 -12.8%
Oklahoma 25,897 27,369 5.7% $502,586,473 $451,501,686 -10.2%
Oregon 13,819 14,538 5.2% $627,753,765 $639,974,399 1.9%
Pennsylvania 50,622 50,366 -0.5% $1,760,004,449 $2,151,980,000 22.3%
Rhode Island 3,351 3,182 -5.0% $175,536,150 $186,349,078 6.2%
South Carolina 24,710 21,773 -11.9% $447,565,286 $436,615,085 -2.4%
South Dakota 3,422 3,524 3.0% $66,177,862 $73,122,593 10.5%
Tennessee 28,102 30,837 9.7% $678,030,989 $723,680,760 6.7%
Texas 154,315 149,159 -3.3% $3,544,624,503 $3,283,213,997 -7.4%
Utah 6,578 6,907 5.0% $148,166,778 $152,778,962 3.1%
Vermont 2,247 2,026 -9.8% $113,853,297 $116,727,820 2.5%
Virginia 38,778 38,688 -0.2% $799,367,854 $824,010,613 3.1%
Washington 16,554 16,716 1.0% $693,643,913 $632,557,822 -8.8%
West Virginia 6,386 6,882 7.8% $170,268,248 $188,966,523 11.0%
Wisconsin 23,015 22,461 -2.4% $868,383,553 $867,991,403 0.0%*
TOTAL (45 states) 1,339,721 1,288,818 -3.8% $43,115,732,021 $42,883,537,590 -0.5%
Source: Vera survey of state prison expenditures
*Values round to 0.0%. Colorado’s percent change is 0.02%. Wisconsin’s percent change is -0.05%.

Why some states’ spending increased

More than half of responding states (25 of 45) registered an increase in their prison spending between 2010 and 2015. These increases were sometimes due to deliberate policy choices, such as a reduction in the use of parole. With more people held in prison, a state may decide to hire more employees, open new facilities or wings, and expand services like health care for incarcerated people. But not all of the states with rising spending also saw a growth in their prison population. For example, in 10 states, prison spending continued to rise despite shrinking prison population because of rising employment and health care costs. Interviews also revealed other factors driving this increase in spending. 

Prison Population and Spending 2010-2015

Adjust arrows to view the four different combinations of population and spending trends. Select any state to see detailed data.

In 13 states where the prison population has declined since 2010, total prison costs declined by $1.6 billion.
In 7 states where the prison population has increased since 2010, total prison costs declined $254 million.
In 10 states where the prison population has declined since 2010, total prison costs increased $1.1 billion.
In 15 states where the prison population has increased since 2010, total prisons costs increased $508 million.
Public sentiment

Political and public reaction to a well-publicized crime can sometimes sideline policy changes that aim to reduce prison spending. For example, despite enacting criminal justice reform in 2011, public outcry after a high profile crime committed by an absconded parolee in 2013 led Arkansas to enact stringent parole policies that revoked more parolees back to prison.32 Because of these changes, the prison population soared, as did the number of people held in local jails. Between 2010 and 2015, the prison population increased by 20 percent, with much of this growth a result of Arkansas sending people on probation or parole back to prison for violating terms of their supervision in the community.33 The state had more prison employees in 2015 than in 2010 and spent more on salaries and employee benefits. The population held in local jails, meanwhile, increased by 66 percent between 2010 and 2015, and boarding payments to local jails to house overflow increased by $5.4 million over this period. By 2015, some counties began sending some of the people in their jurisdiction to be housed in Bowie County, Texas.34

Rising employment costs

Fifteen states (of the 40 that could offer comparable data) reported an increase in the number of prison employees between fiscal years 2010 and 2015 (including uniform staff, non-uniform staff, contract employees for medical services, contract employees at private prisons, and all other prison-related employees). Even in some states with relatively flat or shrinking workforces, the corrections departments face rising salary costs due to wage increases. On average, salary and overtime expenditures (exclusive of employee benefits) made up 44 percent of state prison spending in 2015 and employee benefits made up another 24 percent of state prison spending. 

In Pennsylvania, the prison workforce decreased by 8 percent between 2010 and 2015, while the prison population remained largely flat. Despite the decline in the number of employees, prison spending increased by 22 percent between 2010 and 2015. Expenditures on employee benefits, including health care for current and former employees, increased by 51 percent between 2010 and 2015, largely due to a dramatic increase in the amount that state employers were required to contribute to employee pensions.35 Additionally, salary expenditures increased by 8 percent due to negotiated salary increases, while spending on overtime doubled, partially as a result of hiring freezes in the 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 budget years that left many positions vacant.36

Meanwhile, in a number of states that reduced their prison populations, the anticipated cost reduction was offset by simultaneous increases in the number of staff or in related employee costs. For example, Vermont shrunk its total prison population by 10 percent between fiscal year 2010 and 2015, and decreased its population held in private out-of-state prisons by more than one-third. But the state increased the number of state prison employees by 4 percent. With more employees, costs like salaries, pensions, and fringe benefits all increased.37 In Rhode Island, salary and other fringe benefit expenditures increased due to union negotiated increases while pension contributions increased statewide due to pension reform efforts.38 Similarly, despite a decline in both its prison population and the number of prison staff, California's prison spending rose $560 million between 2010 and 2015, primarily because salary, pension, and other employee and retiree benefits continued to increase, also as a result of union negotiated increases.39 

Rising health care costs

The number of people aged 55 and older in state prisons has more than doubled between 2003 and 2013, far exceeding the change in the overall prison population over that period.40 With the rapid aging of the prison population, a growing cohort of state prisoners are in need of specialized care that addresses the typical chronic medical and mental conditions that afflict the elderly, including dementia, impaired mobility, and loss of hearing and vision. Also, due to medical histories often involving substance use and inadequate medical care, people who are incarcerated are on average substantially older physiologically than people who are not incarcerated—meaning that the symptoms and conditions they experience are those common to someone who is older than their actual age.41 Although there is increasing availability and use of new drugs that can provide greater health and quality of life than previous drugs, they do so at a higher cost.42 For example, in Kentucky, health care spending increased by 54 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, largely due to both its growing aging population and the cost of pharmaceuticals for HIV and Hepatitis C.43

Some states are legally required to improve health care for incarcerated people, which can require an increase in spending. Delaware was under a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Justice over correctional health care practices. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, the state’s health care spending increased by 27 percent and spending on overtime nearly doubled, partially as a strategy to meet the requirements of this agreement.44

In some states, health care needs necessitate increased staffing levels, more officer training, and expanded treatment offerings, bringing costs up further. In Montana, health care costs have increased, partially as a result of the completion, in 2012, of a 25-bed facility for people with serious, chronic medical conditions.45 Montana’s prison population is aging and faces a mounting need for care for acute health conditions.46 The average cost per day at this facility is nearly three times higher than the cost of the state’s other prisons.47