The cost of incarceration in the United States exceeds $1 trillion, or six percent of gross domestic product, and dwarfs the amount spent on corrections alone, finds a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.
“The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost by ignoring important social costs,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, assistant professor at the Brown School and an expert on incarceration.
A new study, “The Economic Burden of Incarceration in the U.S.,” led by doctoral student Michael McLaughlin, with assistance from Pettus-Davis, draws on a burgeoning area of scholarship to assign monetary values to include costs to incarcerated persons, families, children and communities, which yield an aggregate burden of $1.2 trillion dollars.
“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs,” said Pettus-Davis, director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice and co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative.
“More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime,” she said.
The scale of incarceration in the U.S. over the past 40 years is unprecedented, Pettus-Davis said. The prison population grew seven-fold as this country became the world leader in incarceration.
“Researchers have devoted considerable effort to estimating the cost of crime, but no study has yet estimated the aggregate burden of incarceration,” Pettus-Davis said.
“Recent reports highlighting the costs to incarcerated persons, families, and communities have made it possible to estimate the true cost of incarceration,” she said. “This is important because it suggests that the true cost has been grossly underestimated, perhaps resulting in a level of incarceration beyond that which is socially optimal.”