A new study examining the economic toll of mass incarceration in the United States concludes that the full cost exceeds $1 trillion ― with about half of that burden falling on the families, children and communities of people who have been locked up.
The United States is the biggest jailer on the planet, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. Another 7 million Americans are either on probation or on parole. Operating all those federal and state prisons, plus running local jails, is generally said to cost the U.S. government about $80 billion a year.
But in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that the $80 billion price tag is likely a gross underestimation, because it does not factor in the social costs of incarceration.
“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs,” Carrie Pettus-Davis, director of the university’s Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice and a co-author of the study, said last week.
At $1 trillion, the broader costs of incarceration dwarf the operational costs of the U.S. government. And disturbingly, more than half of that cost, researchers say, is borne by the families, children and communities of incarcerated people.
A growing body of research has established that formerly incarcerated people who get jobs tend to have significantly diminished incomes, even long after they leave prison. Researchers at Washington University found that incarcerated people lose about $70 billion in wages they would have otherwise earned as part of the workforce. And people who do find employment after incarceration miss out on an estimated $230 billion in reduced earnings over the course of their lifetime.
“Formerly incarcerated persons earn lower wages because they face occupational restrictions, encounter discrimination in the hiring process, and have weaker social networks and less human capital due to their incarceration,” the researchers note.
The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate 3.5 times higher than that of people who have never been incarcerated. Their shortened life spans collectively add a cost of almost $63 billion.
But the single greatest cost the researchers found has to do with the fact that high levels of incarceration may actually increase crime, not deter it, by “reinforcing behavior and survival strategies that are maladaptive outside the prison environment.”
The researchers note that there may be an additional destabilizing effect on communities where many people have been jailed, imprisoned or otherwise detained, thereby “weakening the social controls that bind neighborhoods together.”
Altogether, researchers put those costs of the criminogenic nature of prison at a whopping $285 billion.
The children of incarcerated people pay enormous costs. They are five times more likely to go to prison than their peers. They’re likely to be stigmatized and suffer long-term emotional and behavioral challenges. They also have a greater chance of living in poverty or general instability at home or becoming homeless themselves.
Ten percent of children of incarcerated parents are unable to finish high school or attend college. Many teenage children of incarcerated parents forego their education and enter the labor force early in order to make up for lost family income. And incarcerated people have triple the divorce rate of people who are convicted of a crime but not placed behind bars. Altogether, costs involving the children of the incarcerated reach over $185 billion.
In the researchers’ estimation, the full economic burden of mass incarceration in the U.S. comes to about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It’s also over 11 times larger than the operational costs of correctional facilities.
“Recent reports highlighting the costs to incarcerated persons, families, and communities have made it possible to estimate the true cost of incarceration,” Pettus-Davis 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.”