Incarceration in the U.S. costs more than $1 trillion a year, Washington University study claims

The economic toll of incarceration in the U.S. tops $1 trillion, and more than half of that falls on the families and communities of the people incarcerated, according to a recent study by Washington University researchers.

“For every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another 10 dollars of other types of costs to families, children and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget,” said Michael McLaughlin, the doctoral student and certified public accountant who led the study. “Incarceration doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

The study’s authors claim to be the first to assign an actual dollar amount to the societal costs of incarceration, not just the governmental costs of running corrections systems, which many experts estimate to be $80 billion.

 That $80 billion number “considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs,” the researchers wrote.

The study was spearheaded by McLaughlin and Carrie Pettus-Davis, who as co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative advocates for the shrinking of the U.S. mass incarceration system, which is the largest in the world. Pettus-Davis is also director of the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, which like the initiative is based at Washington U.

Some of the societal costs of incarceration include the wages people no longer earn while imprisoned — $70.5 billion — and the amount of lifetime earnings they will likely lose out on — $230 billion — after they get out because of employment restrictions and discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, the study says.

The formerly incarcerated also have a mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than people who were not incarcerated, according to the study, and researchers estimated the cost of their shortened lives to be $62.6 billion.

As for the communities where incarcerated people live, the researchers believe the biggest cost — $285.8 billion — is the criminogenic effect of prison, or the theory that prison reinforces criminal behaviors that carry over into a community.

Incarcerated people are 18 to 25 times more likely than those who have never been jailed to commit a crime in the future, Pettus-Davis says.

Jail and prison removes a person’s social ties to a community, so it’ll become harder for them to get a job, and they’ll be more likely to turn toward crime to fill that economic need, McLaughlin says. Because incarceration is so frequent in some communities, the social deterrent to not commit a crime may be weakened in those neighborhoods, McLaughlin added.

 “We’re getting to a point in the U.S., in society, that we’ve incarcerated so many people that it’s kind of become a common thing in some communities,” McLaughlin said.

Children with incarcerated parents are also five times more likely to go to prison themselves and receive less education and wages, a total estimated cost of $166.6 billion.

Other costs include the increased likelihood of divorce, $17.7 billion, decreased property values, $11 billion and adverse health, $10.2 billion.

The study’s authors acknowledge that correlation does not always equal causation and that these costs may have already been likely to happen in the community independent of incarceration because of other associated phenomena, like poverty. The authors were careful to select research that controlled for factors like poverty and isolated the impact of incarceration as much as possible.

They also admit the study does not analyze the benefits of incarceration, but argue that “there is a point where the marginal cost of incarcerating an additional individual exceeds the marginal benefit.”

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

Kristen Taketa is the night general assignment reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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