Share this article
Michael Haugen | May 29, 2015
In the last decade, much attention has been brought forth about the burgeoning state of our nation’s various justice systems. Lawmakers, communities, and other interested parties have recognized that tens of billions are being spent every year–$80 billion in 2010 alone, by Department of Justice estimates—on a system that is inefficient, imprisons more offenders than corrections facilities can accommodate, yet still features unacceptably high recidivism rates.
In light of these facts, legislatures at the state level began studying the unique characteristics of their state’s corrections practices, and started passed systemic reform packages. In 2007, Texas lawmakers, after coming to the realization that the state faced a prison bed shortfall of 17,000 as prison populations rose, made an investment of $241 million over two years in evidence-based programs. This reinvestment package was aimed at reducing recidivism, instituting new drug courts, imposing swift and graduated sanctions for continued lawbreaking, and incentivizing compliance in probation.
The results have been impressive. Texas has realized about $3 billion dollars in long-term savings, reduced recidivism rates by 25%, closed three prisons, and now has its lowest rate of crime since 1968. Other states like Georgia and Alabama have since followed suit, seeing that reduction in prison populations can occur without imperiling public safety.
With most of the nation’s discussions centering on incarceration rates in state prisons—which now hold 1.4 million offenders, a five-fold increase since the 1970’s—much of the focus has been there regarding reducing populations and finding fiscal efficiencies. However, prisons are not the only place a significant number of people are incarcerated. Much less consideration has yet been given to local jails, which hold over 700,000 offenders either awaiting trial, or have received sentences of less than a year.
A new Vera Institute of Justice report, “The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration,” highlights the central—if not always visible—role that these local jails play in the criminal justice system. According to the report, local jails nationwide saw more than 12 million admissions in 2013, all of which necessitate significant resources to maintain. For instance, as jail admissions increase, more and more staff and facilities—which have high overhead costs–are needed to accommodate them. This puts strain on local and county budgets already facing shortfalls elsewhere: in 2011, the Department of Justice estimates that jails cost localities over $22 billion.
These facts are important to those interested in achieving reductions in both jail population and unnecessary bloat. However, as the report details, pinpointing the exact fiscal impact of jails is often difficult, as other government agencies bear a large portion of those costs that aren’t reflected in jail’s budgets. In fact, in Vera’s survey of 35 prisons across the country, all reported that at least some of their operating expenses came from extra-correctional sources, and the amounts varied: between 1% and 53% of those costs came from other agencies. Therefore, any attempt for local, county, or state lawmakers to take stock of their own jailing situations must take this into account to achieve an accurate representation.
In detailing the various costs borne by jails, the Vera report found that 74% of expenses were related to employee salaries and benefits, with 21% coming from “other” costs (contracts, supplies, and utilities), and 5% from capital expenditures. Because the lion’s share of costs come from personnel-related areas, Vera states that any jurisdiction hoping to reduce costs associated with their jail systems must, in turn, reduce the number of people passing through their doors:
“The only way localities can safely reduce the costs incurred by jail incarceration is to limit the number of people who enter and stay in jails. This is no small task. How and why so many people cycle through jails is a result of decisions dispersed among largely autonomous system actors. This means that the power to downsize the jail is largely in the hands of stakeholders outside its walls. So only by widening the lens—looking beyond the jail to the decisions made by police, prosecutors, judges, and community corrections officials—will jurisdictions be able to significantly reduce the size of their jails, save scarce county and municipal resources, and make the necessary community reinvestments to address the health and social service needs that have for too long landed at the doorstep of the jail.”
The full Vera report can be found here.