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January 25, 2017

"Following the Money of Mass Incarceration"


The title of this post is the title of this notable new report and infographic from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is part of the text of the report: 

The cost of imprisonment — including who benefits and who pays — is a major part of the national discussion around criminal justice policy. But prisons and jails are just one piece of the criminal justice system and the amount of media and policy attention that the various players get is not necessarily proportional to their influence.

In this first-of-its-kind report, we find that the system of mass incarceration costs the government and families of justice-involved people at least $182 billion every year. In this report:

• we provide the significant1 costs of our globally unprecedented system of mass incarceration and over-criminalization,

• we give the relative importance of the various parts,

• we highlight some of the under-discussed yet costly parts of the system, and then

• we share all of our sources so that journalists and advocates can build upon our work.

Our goal with this report is to give a hint as to how the criminal justice system works by identifying some of the key stakeholders and quantifying their “stake” in the status quo. Our visualization shows how wide and how deep mass incarceration and over-criminalization have spread into our economy. We find:

• Almost half of the money spent on running the correctional system goes to paying staff. This group is an influential lobby that sometimes prevents reform and whose influence is often protected even when prison populations drop.

• The criminal justice system is overwhelmingly a public system, with private prison companies acting only as extensions of the public system. The government payroll for corrections employees is over 100 times higher than the private prison industry’s profits.

• Despite the fact that the Constitution requires counsel to be appointed for defendants unable to afford legal representation, the system only spends $4.5 billion on this right. And over the last decade, states have been reducing this figure even as caseloads have grown.

• Private companies that supply goods to the prison commissary or provide telephone service for correctional facilities bring in almost as much money ($2.9 billion) as governments pay private companies ($3.9 billion) to operate private prisons.

• Feeding and providing health care for 2.3 million people — a population larger than that of 15 different states — is expensive.

This report and infographic are a first step toward better understanding who benefits from mass incarceration and who might be resistant to reform. We have no doubt that we missed some costs, and we did not include some costs because they are relatively small in the big picture or are currently unknowable. But, by following the money, one can see that private prison corporations aren’t the only ones who benefit from mass incarceration.

Some of the lesser-known major players in the system of mass incarceration and over-criminalization are:

• Bail bond companies that collect $1.4 billion in nonrefundable fees from defendants and their families. The industry also actively works to block reforms that threaten its profits, even if reforms could prevent people from being detained in jail because of their poverty.

• Specialized phone companies that win monopoly contracts and charge families up to $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call.

• Commissary vendors that sell goods to incarcerated people — who rely largely on money sent by loved ones — is an even larger industry that brings in $1.6 billion a year.

A graphic like this shows the relative economic cost of different parts of mass incarceration, but it can also obscure the fact that we don’t have a single monolithic system. Instead, we have a federal system, 50 state systems, and thousands of local government systems. Sometimes these systems work together, although often they do not; and looking at just the national picture can obscure the importance of state and local policy decisions. For example, while state government spending makes up the majority (57%) of corrections costs, local governments make up almost a third (32%). Local governments are largely enforcing state law, and local discretionary arrest and bail policies can have tremendous influence on both the state budget and justice outcomes. For example, more than half ($13.6 billion) of the cost of running local jails is spent detaining people who have not been convicted.

To be sure, there are ideological as well as economic reasons for mass incarceration and over-criminalization.  But at this moment, when crime is near record lows and there is increasing attention to the role of privatization in the justice system, we need a far more expansive view of how our criminal justice system works, whom it hurts, and whom it really serves.  If we are to make our society safer and stronger, we’ll need to be making far smarter investments than we are today.

January 25, 2017 at 03:08 PM | Permalink


This is left wing pro-criminal, and lawyer rent seeking false propaganda. It is missing one side of the utility equation. What is the value of incapacitating millions violent, super-predators. Assume a conservative 200 crimes a year, each worth a small amount, $10,000, in damage to victims, to the jurisdiction, and to the economy. Compare whatever cost of imprisonment to the $2 million saved in damage a year. This $2 million places no value on the quality of life of the neighborhoods, the families of these criminals, and the general public feeling of safety.

At $2 million each, for 2 million people, that adds a value of $4 trillion a year in benefit to the tax payer. You may reduce that by the fraction of the 2 million toxic people to be dumped on poor, politically weak districts. If the crime is murder, it does not cause $10,000 in damage, but $6 million, the current value of an ordinary life according to the EPA. If the victim is an honor student on his way to great success, add a zero that $6 million lost. The tiniest of decarcerations has immediately resulted in substantial increases in murders in 20 cities. Many victims were uninvolved people of great potential.

The lawyer advocates of decarceration are irresponsible, mass murderers of minority youths and little girls skipping rope in front of their houses. Some of these little girls have been Honor Students, well on their way. The lawyer is 100% responsible, since the rise in massive criminality has the foreseeability of planetary orbits. Does the sun rise in the East? Decarceration will kill thousands of people, even in the face of advances in trauma care from our wars.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 25, 2017 7:57:14 PM

"...when crime is near record lows..."

This is ridiculous. Crimes no longer are counted by the millions. They are counted by the billions a year. This is ridiculous lawyer denier bad faith propaganda. The lawyer is a ridiculous fool, or worse, a lying denier. Deniers argue in bad faith, and one may not argue with one.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 25, 2017 8:01:44 PM

No one's asking that those incarcerated be treated like they are at a resort or spa, just that they and their families aren't taken advantage of by the system.
Families of those incarcerated are the ones "fleeced" by the government.
Comissary goods are expensive. Prisons don't provide extra clothing during cold winters.
Families foot the bill because if you don't stay warm, you get sick, and if you get sick in prison, "good luck" getting to see a Dr. or NP. anytime soon.
Phone call prices used to be outrageous, that has changed for some, but, families still must put money into comissary accounts for those calls.
And food portion sizes which used to drop at the end of the year when the prison budget got low, now routinely are child-size portions of food so low in quality that you would't buy it at a discount store. The questionable meat products served at some prisons are best avoided and commissary foods, while not necessarily healthy, are often the safer bet when when certain items are served.
None of this is false propaganda, this is the reality of prison for those incarcerated as well as their families.

Posted by: kat | Jan 26, 2017 10:06:30 AM

Kat. I agree. You should be filing regulatory complaints about consumer fraud with state and federal consumer agencies. Let the cost of replying exceed any high profit.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 26, 2017 3:06:53 PM

I estimated the value destroyed by crime to be $4 trillion a year. If you cut that in half, spending $200 billion, the return on investment is $10 for each $1 invested. What other human activity has a 1000% return on investment (ROI), guaranteed, year to year?

You can buy a gun, rob a bank, and get a lower rate of return. There is almost no other activity with that return, and at no risk.

This is the best investment in all of human activity.

Posted by: David Behar | Jan 30, 2017 1:40:04 AM

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