Washington University Study Finds U.S. Spends More Than $1 Trillion On Incarceration

The cost of incarceration in the U.S. is now over $1 trillion, which is six percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

“The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School, “but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost by ignoring important social costs.”

Science Daily reports that Washington University in St. Louis released a new study showing how much the amount of money spent on incarceration really does dwarf the money spend on corrections.

The study, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” co-led by Pettus-Davis and doctoral student Michael McLaughlin, looks at the rapidly growing cost affecting incarcerated individuals, families, and communities at large.

“For every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another $10 of other types of costs to families, children, and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget,” added McLaughlin. “Incarceration doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The U.S. now leads the world in incarcerated persons and money spent on doing so. Over the last 40 years, the prison population grew seven-fold.

Major epidemic crimes like drunk driving, which costs the U.S. nearly $200 billion, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are much more than the annual amount spent on corrections in general, but are significantly less than how much Americans are paying for the entire incarceration system.

The study shows that aside from just the dollar amount to keep an inmate in prison, there are many more financial effects when incarcerated people are released. They find it very difficult to get a job and transition back into their communities, so they end up going right back to a life of crime.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that people who have been to prison are approximately 25 times more likely than those who have never been to commit a crime.

“If anything, we believe our study underestimates the true cost of incarceration,” said McLaughlin, “because there are some costs like poor emotional health that can’t be quantified by a dollar amount.”

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