If moral decency doesn't drive you to support prison reform, maybe the exorbitant financial costs will.

Our country’s shockingly high mass incarceration rates are not only a blight on American values, they come at an exorbitant cost to taxpayers.

Missing a Heart? You Still Hate Mass Incarceration

We could care about the fact that the United States has more people locked up than any other country in the world, but no higher crime rates. We could care that prisons are becoming overcrowded due to increasing populations. We could care that sexual and physical abuse are common issues in prisons. We could care that many prisons are underfunded, causing more cases of abuse and other violence. We could care about the fact that the majority of people locked up are nonviolent offenders.

Or, if we can’t summon the sympathy for those who have committed crimes and made mistakes, then we can choose the issue that definitely affects all of us – the fact that as more people go to prison and corrections budgets fail to cover the costs, more and more of our tax dollars go toward funding the increased prison populations.

By the Numbers: The Costs of Mass Incarceration

A 2012 study conducted by The Vera Institute of Justice is widely used to represent the costs of prisons by state.

According to the study, state corrections expenditures have nearly quadrupled over the past two decades. This has left costs outside of each state’s corrections budget. The study concluded that, at $39 billion, the total taxpayer cost of prisons in the 40 participating states was 13.9 percent higher ($5.4 billion) than the cost reflected in the states’ combined corrections budgets.

The primary reasons for the costs outside the budgets were: underfunded contributions to retiree health care for corrections employees ($1.9 billion); states’ contributions to retiree health care on behalf of their corrections departments ($837 million); employee benefits, such as health insurance ($613 million); states’ contributions to pensions on behalf of their corrections departments ($598 million); capital costs ($485 million); hospital and other health care for the prison population ($335 million); and underfunded pension contributions for corrections employees ($304 million).

The study broke down the costs to taxpayers in each state per inmate. The lowest cost was in Kentucky, where citizens pay $14,603 per inmate per year. The highest cost was in New York, where citizens pay $60,076. With an average prison population of 59,237, New York pays over $3.5 billion a year to fund its prison operations.

State-by-State Variable Costs

The cost of keeping someone in prison varies greatly by state due to a variety of factors.

Inmate costs are dependent upon the kind of prison in question. In minimum-security prisons, where lower-level offenders reside, fewer staff members are employed, therefore, the cost per inmate will be lower. Equally, when states rely on local jails to house state sentenced inmates, the cost is lower.

Likewise, prison costs vary due to differences in employment and inmate services, including education and hospital care, and the number of inmates being housed in the prison. The per-inmate cost is usually lower in states where the inmate population exceeds the capacity of the prison, because the same amount of resources are used for larger amounts of people.

"In fact, lower costs per inmate may reflect poorer safety and higher recidivism due to less investment in corrections employees and programs."

It is extremely important to note that even though having a higher cost per inmate means having to pay more taxes, is not necessarily a good indication for that state’s corrections system. In fact, lower costs per inmate may reflect poorer safety and higher recidivism due to less investment in corrections employees and programs.

Therefore, it is crucial that we do not pressure states with higher costs per inmate to lower their investments in corrections employees, educational programs and health care for inmates. Rather, as the Vera study points out, states must invest more in policies that safely aim to reduce rates of incarceration, including changes to sentencing and release policies and strategies to reduce recidivism.

Alternatives to Incarceration that Could Save Money

Criminology researchers have found that sending offenders with a history of drug and alcohol abuse to an addiction treatment program — rather than to prison — will not only increase the chances of the offenders recovering, but will cut crime rates and save billions of dollars. It is estimated that about half of all inmates are incarcerated at least in part due to an active drug or alcohol problem.

According to one study, even if only 10 percent of these drug-addicted offenders went to rehabilitation programs instead of jail, the criminal justice system would save $4.8 billion in one year. This is due to drug treatment being cheaper than incarceration, as well as fewer re-arrests leading to lower recidivism and lower incarceration costs, and decreases in healthcare costs for prisons.

Studies have also shown that investing in educational programs decreases recidivism due to more prisoners obtaining jobs after they are released, which saves huge amounts of money. One study showed that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who did not.

According to this study, the direct costs of providing education are estimated to be from $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate, with recidivism costs of $8,700 to $9,700 less for each inmate who received education than those who did not. This suggests that education is an important, cost-effective tool in rehabilitating inmates.

Our Take

These are just a few of the alternatives to incarceration that have been shown to reduce recidivism and cut the rising costs of corrections in this country. It’s time to make investments in educational and rehabilitation programs, not only because it makes sense financially, but because it is the right thing to do for those struggling with addictions and a lack of education inside of our overpopulated prisons.

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Posted 02.05.2016 - 04:31 pm EDT