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CENTER ON SENTENCING AND CORRECTIONS

The Price of Prisons
What Incarceration
Costs Taxpayers
JANUARY 2012 (UPDATED 3/20/12)

Christian Henrichson • Ruth Delaney

Executive Summary
Persistent fiscal challenges in the United States have spurred greater scrutiny of government spending.
States’ corrections expenditures, which have nearly quadrupled over the past two decades, are receiving
considerable attention.
These circumstances make it crucial for policy makers and the public to understand the full cost of prisons to
taxpayers—something that is easier said than done. Although corrections departments pay the vast majority
of costs for state prisons, other departments pay related expenses—some of which are substantial. Depending on the state, these can include employee benefits, capital costs, in-prison education services, or hospital
care for inmates. Additionally, the cost of underfunded contributions for corrections employees’ pension
and retiree health care plans must be included in a comprehensive accounting of prison costs.
In partnership with the Pew Center on the States, staff from the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit developed a methodology for calculating the full cost
of prisons to taxpayers. The application of this methodology, which was developed in collaboration with a
panel of advisers in the fields of corrections and public finance and field-tested in five states, is the subject
of this report.
Vera researchers found that the total taxpayer cost of prisons in the 40 states that participated in this study
was 13.9 percent higher than the cost reflected in those states’ combined corrections budgets. The total
price to taxpayers was $39 billion, $5.4 billion more than the $33.5 billion reflected in corrections budgets
alone. The greatest cost drivers outside corrections departments were as follows:
>> underfunded contributions to retiree health care for corrections employees ($1.9 billion);
>> states’ contributions to retiree health care on behalf of their corrections departments ($837 million);
>> employee benefits, such as health insurance ($613 million);
>> states’ contributions to pensions on behalf of their corrections departments ($598 million);
>> capital costs ($485 million);
>> hospital and other health care for the prison population ($335 million); and
>> underfunded pension contributions for corrections employees ($304 million).
Among the participating states, costs outside the corrections department ranged from less than 1 percent
of the total cost of prisons, in Arizona, to as much as 34 percent in Connecticut. The extra costs accounted for
less than 5 percent of total prison costs in 16 states, 5 to 9.9 percent of total prison costs in nine states,
and 10 to 19.9 percent of total prison costs in nine states (Arkansas, California, Delaware, Kentucky,
Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Washington, and West Virginia). In six states—Connecticut, Illinois,
Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas—20 to 34 percent of the total taxpayer cost of prison was outside the corrections department budget. (To complement this report, the authors have produced a series
of fact sheets with details about each state’s spending. The fact sheets are available on Vera’s website, at
www.vera.org/priceofprisons.)
While it is essential to recognize the full amount a state spends on its prisons, it is also important to recognize
that officials are responsible for ensuring their prisons are safe, secure, and humane—a necessarily expensive undertaking. The temptation to compare states’ per-inmate spending should therefore be avoided, as
low per-inmate costs may invite poorer outcomes in terms of safety and recidivism. To help policy makers
pursue better alternatives, this report identifies measures that have been shown to reduce spending without
jeopardizing public safety—such as modifying sentencing and release policies, strengthening strategies to
reduce recidivism, and boosting operating efficiency.

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

FROM THE CENTER DIRECTOR
Everyone—individuals, families, and government—is paying attention to
what things cost. Perhaps more than ever, it is necessary to know the
real price of our choices, be those in education, health care, or criminal
justice policies.
In this spirit, the Vera Institute of Justice, working with a team of advisers
and the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project,
has developed a methodology for unpacking the financial cost of operating state prisons—including costs that fall beyond the corrections
budget and are often overlooked. This methodology will be a powerful
tool for policy makers and others who need to know what prisons cost.
We cannot pass along this valuable tool, however, without also speaking to its risks. Chief among them is that in these times of lean budgets,
policy makers will want to compare their per-inmate cost with those
of other states—and demand to know why theirs is higher and that it
be cut. Per-inmate cost is a measure of cost and cost alone. It reflects
neither quality, as measured by, say, staff safety, nor outcomes, like the
impact on recidivism. In some states, for example, this cost has been
limited by incarcerating people in numbers far beyond what facilities
were built to hold.
Other states rely heavily on housing state prisoners in local jails, which
typically saves money, while still others incarcerate a larger proportion of
low-risk offenders who are less expensive to manage. All these practices
reduce a system’s per-inmate cost but do not necessarily contribute to
greater public safety.

Contents
2	Introduction

2	 Data Collection

3	Findings

11	 Cutting Costs,
	
Maintaining Safety

13	Conclusion

15	 Appendix A: Methodology
22	 Appendix B: Survey

Decades of research have given us many tools for improving crime desistance among those who have been incarcerated, and states are using
that research to reform their sentencing, release, and supervision policies.
Many of these reforms require some up-front investment, but present the
greatest opportunities for budget savings over the long run while also
enhancing public safety. Knowing the taxpayer cost of any public policy
option is important—especially now. But it is just as important to examine and weigh those costs against the benefits they promise to deliver.

Peggy McGarry
Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections

1

Introduction

Expenditures
at corrections
departments
account for only a
portion of states’
financial obligations.

Decades of increasing incarceration and soaring corrections costs have been well
documented and are a familiar story to policy makers and the public. Over the past
40 years, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the use of prisons to
combat crime. As a result, incarceration rates have skyrocketed, with the country’s
state prison population having grown by more than 700 percent since the 1970s.1
Today, more than 1 in 100 adults are in prison or jail nationwide.2 This trend has
come at great cost to taxpayers. States’ corrections spending—including prisons as
well as probation and parole—has nearly quadrupled over the past two decades,
making it the fastest-growing budget item after Medicaid.3
Although these numbers are alarming, what is less widely understood is that in
some cases, expenditures at corrections departments account for only a portion
of the financial obligation a state commits to when it sentences an individual to
prison. Existing figures often underestimate the total cost of state prisons—and in
some states, the overlooked costs are substantial.
The best available figures sometimes fail to capture the entire cost of prisons
because they rely solely on expenditures by state corrections agencies. Although
these departments are responsible for the vast majority of prison expenditures,
their budgets often do not reflect a full accounting of state spending on imprisonment. Other state agencies pay many costs, including employee health insurance, pension contributions, and inmate hospital care. Consequently, these costs
are often overlooked when reporting prison spending. This means that policy
makers and other stakeholders are likely to have an incomplete picture of the
financial cost of incarceration.
This report addresses the existing discrepancies by introducing a methodology
to help stakeholders determine the total taxpayer cost of prisons. Drawing on guidance from leading experts in the field, the report identifies the items that must be
included to calculate the taxpayer cost of prison accurately, provides the taxpayer
cost of incarcerating a sentenced adult offender to state prison in 40 states, and
presents a methodology states can use to calculate their total prison costs. The
report concludes with recommendations on steps policy makers can take to safely
rein in these costs. Fact sheets with additional details about the 40 states that
participated in this report are available at www.vera.org/priceofprisons.

Data Collection
In early 2011, staff of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and
Corrections and Cost-Benefit Analysis Unit developed a survey on prison costs in
consultation with advisers in the fields of corrections and public finance, as well
as staff at the state departments of corrections in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New
York, and Washington.4 Through the initial work with these five departments,
2

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

Vera determined that prison costs outside the corrections budget fall under
three categories: (1) costs that are centralized for administrative purposes, such
as employee benefits and capital costs; (2) inmate services funded through other
agencies, such as education and training programs; and (3) the cost of underfunded pension and retiree health care plans.
In August 2011, analysts distributed a survey to the department of corrections
in every state to collect these costs. Corrections departments from 40 states completed and returned the survey, which asked respondents to provide prison expenditures paid by the department of corrections, as well as prison costs paid by other
agencies.5 Data was collected for fiscal
year 2010 and includes costs funded by
both state and federal revenue.6
Using publicly available docuCOLLATERAL COSTS
ments, Vera researchers then collected
information regarding funding levels
This study is an analysis of the direct cost of state prisons to taxpayers.
for pensions and retiree health care,
as well as statewide administrative
costs.7 After using this information
to calculate the total prison costs for
each state, Vera returned this information to the state for certification.
Through the certification process,
respondents reviewed their responses
and commented on any concerns they
had about Vera’s calculations of the
cost of underfunded pensions and
retiree health care. A detailed description of this process and a copy of the
survey tool are provided, respectively,
in appendices A and B.

Findings
After calculating the price of prisons
using the methodology described
above, Vera staff examined the results.
The findings fall into the following
categories: (1) the number of prison
costs that are outside the corrections
budgets; (2) the total taxpayer cost of
prisons; and (3) the total taxpayer cost
per inmate. Each of these findings is
discussed below.

Vera did not attempt to measure every cost that arises as a result of
incarceration.
When a person is in prison, taxpayers may incur additional—or indirect—costs, such as the costs of social services, child welfare, and education, for example. For the most part, these indirect costs are borne
by government agencies other than the department of corrections.
They are not included in the calculations presented here, however.
Incarcerated men and women also bear economic and social costs associated with prison—as do their families and communities.* As a 2005
study concluded, “Incarceration impacts the life of a family in several
important ways: it strains them financially, disrupts parental bonds,
separates spouses, places severe stress on the remaining caregivers,
leads to a loss of discipline in the household, and to feelings of shame,
stigma, and anger.”** Although these costs—typically referred to as
collateral costs—are important for policy deliberations, they are not
tallied in this report.
Finally, it is important to note that all corrections spending presents an
opportunity cost. This simply means that any state resources spent on
corrections cannot be used for other purposes.†

* Pew Center on the States, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility
(Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, September 2010).
** Ricardo Barreras, Ernest Drucker, and David Rosenthal, “The Concentration of Substance
Use, Criminal Justice Involvement, and HIV/AIDS in the Families of Drug Offenders,” Journal
of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine 82, no. 1 (2005), 168.
† Patricia M. Harris and Todd R. Clear. Costs of Incarceration Policies: Literature Review
(School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University, 1989), 5.

3

PRISON COSTS OUTSIDE THE CORRECTIONS BUDGET
In total, 11 types of prison costs fall outside the corrections budget. State responses also revealed considerable variation with respect to the number of
prison costs that are not included in the corrections budget. The 11 cost categories are listed below, along with a brief description of the findings in 40 states.

Costs budgeted centrally for administrative purposes
>> Employee benefits and taxes. Although the salaries for corrections
employees are always included in the department’s budget, funding for
some personnel costs (such as health insurance or the employer share
of social security taxes) is provided by a central administrative fund
in seven states: Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, New
Jersey, New York, and Texas.

State survey
responses revealed
considerable
variation with
respect to the
number of prison
costs that fall
outside the
corrections budget.

>> Pension contributions. Some states make contributions to pension
plans for all state employees through a central fund. Six states—Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—fund
pension contributions for corrections employees through an account
outside the corrections budget.
>> Retiree health care contributions. Most states provide retirees with
health care benefits in addition to their pensions. Twenty-one states pay
these costs through a central account and not the corrections budget.
>> Capital costs. In 26 states, funding for capital projects to construct and
renovate prisons is provided outside the corrections budget.
>> Legal judgments and claims. The costs of prison-related legal judgments and claims, as well as contributions to the state tort fund, are
provided through a central account in 16 states.
>> Statewide administrative costs. Central state agencies provide administrative services related to prison operations. In most states, many of
these costs are not billed to the corrections department and are therefore outside that budget.
>> Private prisons. The costs of private facilities are typically paid through
the corrections budget in states that contract with outside operators.
In Florida and Maryland, however, other departments pay for some
of these expenses. Maryland does not use private prisons, although
costs for contracted prerelease facilities are paid by the Division of
Parole and Probation.

Inmate services funded through other agencies
>> Hospital care. In eight states, a portion of the costs for inmate hospital
care is funded outside the corrections department.
>> Education and training. In 12 states, departments other than corrections
pay for some costs of education and training for men and women in prison.

4

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

Figure 1: Prison Costs Outside States’ Corrections Budgets, Fiscal Year 2010
Costs Budgeted Centrally for Administrative Purposes
Employee
Benefits
and Taxes

Pension
Contributions

Alabama

 

 

Arizona

 

 

Arkansas

 

 

California

 

State

Colorado

Retiree
Health Care
Contributions

Inmate Services

Underfunded
Retirement Benefits

Hospital
Care

Education
and
Training

Underfunded
Pension
Contributions

Underfunded
Retiree
Health Care
Contributions

Number
of Costs
Outside the
Corrections
Department

Capital
Costs

Judgments
and Claims

Private
Prisons

Statewide
Administrative
Costs

 

 

●

 

●

 

●

 

●

4

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

 

 

4

●

●

●

 

●

 

●

 

●

6

 

●

 

 

 

●

●

●

 

●

5

 

 

●

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

4

●

●

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

●

●

8

Delaware

 

 

●

 

●

 

●

 

●

 

●

5

Florida

 

 

 

 

 

●

●

 

 

 

●

3

Georgia

 

 

●

●

 

 

●

 

 

 

●

4

Idaho

 

 

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

 

●

5

Illinois

●

●

●

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

7

Indiana

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

3

Connecticut

Iowa

 

 

 

●

●

 

●

 

 

●

●

5

Kansas

 

 

 

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

2

Kentucky

 

 

●

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

5

Louisiana

 

 

 

●

●

 

●

●

●

●

●

7

Maine

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

 

 

●

4

Maryland

 

 

 

●

 

●

●

 

●

●

●

6

Michigan

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

4

Minnesota

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

4

Missouri

●

●

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

 

●

7

Montana

 

 

 

 

●

 

●

●

●

●

 

5

Nebraska

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

 

 

 

 

2

Nevada

 

 

 

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

3

New Hampshire

●

 

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

 

 

5

New Jersey

●

●

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

●

●

8

New York

●

●

●

 

 

 

●

 

 

 

●

5

North Carolina

 

 

●

●

 

 

●

 

●

 

●

5

North Dakota

 

 

●

 

●

 

●

 

 

●

 

4

Ohio

 

 

 

 

 

 

●

 

 

 

●

2

Oklahoma

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

●

 

1

Pennsylvania

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

●

●

●

6

Rhode Island

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

●

 

●

5

Texas

●

●

●

●

●

 

●

 

 

●

●

8

Utah

 

 

●

 

 

 

●

 

●

 

 

3

Vermont

 

 

●

●

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

5

Virginia

 

 

●

●

●

 

●

 

●

●

●

7

Washington

 

 

●

●

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

4

West Virginia

 

 

 

 

●

 

●

 

 

●

●

4

Wisconsin

 

 

 

●

 

 

●

●

 

 

 

3

Total (40 states)

7

6

21

26

16

2

38

8

12

21

30 

187

Source: Vera Institute of Justice, True Cost of Prisons survey.
Note: Bullet points denote that some portion of the cost is outside the corrections budget.
Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming did not complete the survey. The South Carolina Department
of Corrections was unable to certify the state data submitted prior to publication of this report. Maryland does not use private prisons, however, costs for contracted
prerelease facilities are paid by the budget of the Division of Parole and Probation.

5

Underfunded contributions for retirement benefits

Among 40
states surveyed,
costs outside
the corrections
department ranged
from less than
1 percent of the total
cost of prisons in
Arizona to as much
as 34 percent in
Connecticut.

6

>> Underfunded pensions benefit. Twenty-one states did not pay the
full cost of the annually required pension contribution for corrections
personnel in 2010. States that did not fully fund the contribution
necessary to pay for benefits in the long run will need to pay this
cost, plus interest, in the future.
>> Underfunded retiree health care benefits. Similarly, 30 states did not
pay the full cost of retiree health care obligations for corrections employees in 2010. States that did not fully fund the contribution to pay for benefits in the long run will need to pay this cost, plus interest, in the future.
Figure 1 shows the number of cost categories that applied to each state in the
study. Seven states—Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Texas,
and Virginia—had more than six types of costs outside the corrections department. At the opposite extreme, nine states had three or fewer types of such costs.

TOTAL TAXPAYER COST OF STATE PRISONS
The total taxpayer cost of prisons in the 40 states that provided data was
13.9 percent higher than the costs represented by their combined corrections
budgets. The full price of prisons to taxpayers—including costs that fell outside
the corrections budgets—was $39 billion, $5.4 billion more than the states’
aggregate corrections department spending, which totaled $33.5 billion.
Of the $5.4 billion in prison costs outside the corrections department, the greatest costs were underfunded contributions to retiree health care ($1.9 billion);
states’ contributions to retiree health care on behalf of the corrections department ($837 million); employee benefits and taxes ($613 million); states’ contributions to pensions on behalf of the corrections department ($598 million); capital
costs ($485 million); health and hospital care for the prison population ($335
million); and underfunded pension contributions ($304 million). Because Vera
could not obtain data for some costs outside states’ correction budgets, these are
conservative estimates that undercount the total amount of prison-related costs
outside the corrections budget.8
Individually, states saw variety in the difference between their corrections budgets and their overall prison spending. Among 40 states surveyed, costs outside
the corrections department ranged from less than 1 percent of the total cost of
prisons in Arizona to as much as 34 percent in Connecticut. Prison costs outside the
corrections budget accounted for as much as 5 percent of total prison costs in 16
states, 5 to 9.9 percent of total prison costs in nine states, and 10 to 19.9 percent of
total prison costs in nine states: In six states—Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New
York, Pennsylvania, and Texas—20 to 34 percent of the total taxpayer cost of prison
was outside the corrections department budget (see figures 2 and 3).
Figure 3 compares the corrections department and non-corrections department costs for corrections in each participating state, along with aggregate
figures for all 40 states.

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

Figure 2: Percentage of Prison Costs Outside States’ Corrections Budgets, Fiscal Year 2010

14.4%
1.8%

6.1%

3.3%
8.3%
7.5%

1.4%

1.0%

8.5%

5.5%

22.8%
34.0%
22.6%

3.9%
3.1%

5.3%
4.3%
12.2%

32.5%

3.8%

1.3%

12.5%

7.2%

18.0%
11.5%

10.1%

3.5%

4.8%

1.3%

25.9%

12.6%
9.1%

2.6%

0.5%

11.5%
3.7%

23.7%
5 percent or less: 15 states

8.9%

12.9%
1.4%

5-9.9 percent: 10 states
10-19.9 percent: 9 states
20-34 percent: 6 states
Did not participate in survey

Source: Vera Institute of Justice, True Cost of Prisons survey. (Alaska and Hawaii did not participate in the survey.) Taxpayer costs include expenses funded by state and
federal revenue. See the state fact sheets at www.vera.org/priceofprisons for more details.

7

Figure 3: The Taxpayer Costs of State Prisons, Fiscal Year 2010
(dollars in thousands)
Corrections
Department
Prison
Costs

Prison Costs
Outside
Corrections
Department

Alabama

$445,514

$16,993

$462,507

3.7%

Arizona

$998,453

$5,100

$1,003,553

0.5%

State

Total
Taxpayer
Cost
of Prisons

Percentage of
Prison Cost
Outside the
Corrections Budget

Arkansas

$288,609

$37,471

$326,081

11.5%

California

$6,962,736

$969,652

$7,932,388

12.2%

Colorado

$584,724

$21,484

$606,208

3.5%

Connecticut

$613,269

$316,169

$929,438

34.0%
11.5%

Delaware

$190,409

$24,801

$215,210

Florida

$2,053,154

$29,377

$2,082,531

1.4%

Georgia

$1,029,553

$100,305

$1,129,858

8.9%

Idaho

$143,211

$1,457

$144,669

1.0%

Illinois

$1,177,049

$566,104

$1,743,153

32.5%
1.3%

Indiana

$562,248

$7,203

$569,451

Iowa

$265,409

$10,630

$276,039

3.9%

Kansas

$156,141

$2,057

$158,198

1.3%

Kentucky

$272,535

$39,192

$311,727

12.6%

Louisiana

$608,062

$90,300

$698,363

12.9%

Maine

$124,774

$8,132

$132,906

6.1%

Maryland

$731,293

$104,930

$836,223

12.5%
5.5%

Michigan

$1,198,237

$69,717

$1,267,954

Minnesota

$365,509

$29,811

$395,319

7.5%

Missouri

$503,987

$176,500

$680,487

25.9%
1.8%

Montana

$74,626

$1,334

$75,959

Nebraska

$158,190

$5,094

$163,284

3.1%

Nevada

$267,890

$15,013

$282,903

5.3%

New Hampshire
New Jersey

$80,306

$1,111

$81,417

1.4%

$1,161,258

$255,469

$1,416,727

18.0%
22.8%

New York

$2,746,184

$812,526

$3,558,711

North Carolina

$1,095,395

$109,272

$1,204,667

9.1%

North Dakota

$56,160

$1,905

$58,065

3.3%

$1,265,012

$50,465

$1,315,477

3.8%

$441,772

$11,584

$453,356

2.6%

$1,591,440

$463,829

$2,055,269

22.6%

Ohio
Oklahoma
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
Texas

$159,751

$12,312

$172,063

7.2%

$2,523,454

$782,904

$3,306,358

23.7%

Utah

$178,095

$7,917

$186,013

4.3%

Vermont

$102,047

$9,233

$111,280

8.3%

Virginia

$712,422

$36,219

$748,642

4.8%

Washington

$684,561

$115,029

$799,590

14.4%

West Virginia

$152,128

$17,062

$169,190

10.1%

Wisconsin

$800,310

$74,111

$874,421

8.5%

$33,525,875

$5,409,777

$38,935,653

13.9%

Total (40 states)

Source: Vera Institute of Justice, True Cost of Prisons survey. Taxpayer costs include expenses funded by state and federal revenue.
Apparent discrepancies are the result of rounding. See the state fact sheets at www.vera.org/priceofprisons for more details.
The corrections systems in Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Vermont have a unified structure, meaning that jails and prisons
are operated by the state rather than county and state jurisdictions, respectively. Thus, the prison expenditures in these four states also
include some of the costs of jails. The figures Connecticut and Vermont provided include inmates in both sentenced and accused status.
Delaware’s figures include all expenditures in the Bureau of Prisons, Bureau of Correctional Healthcare Services, and Level IV facilities
(work-release centers and residential drug treatment). The figures Rhode Island provided exclude the costs of pretrial incarceration in jail
and community confinement.

8

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

TOTAL TAXPAYER COST PER INMATE
Among the 40 states surveyed, representing more than 1.2 million inmates
(of 1.4 million total people incarcerated in all 50 state prison systems), the total
per-inmate cost averaged $31,307 and ranged from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076
in New York (see Figure 4).9 The methodology provides an “apples to apples”
comparison of state prison costs because it standardizes the measure and counts
the comprehensive costs to taxpayers in every state.
The value of such a comparison is clear: corrections officials understand that
prison costs are counted differently in every state. In the course of this study, for
example, a Florida Department of Corrections official told interviewers that the
department is often asked why its costs appear to be higher than those of other
states. The answer is, in part, because Florida measures prison costs more comprehensively than some other states do, because relatively few of its prison costs
are outside the corrections budget.
Including prison spending outside the corrections department changes comparisons between states. If, for example, one were to look only at spending within
the corrections budget, the per-inmate cost in Florida ($20,263) appears to be
higher than that cost in two other Southern states, Georgia ($19,171) and Louisiana
($15,225). When costs outside the corrections budget are included, however, the
per-inmate cost among these three states is greatest in Georgia ($21,039), followed
closely by Florida ($20,553). By either calculation, the per-inmate cost is lowest in
Louisiana ($17,486), but the per-inmate cost is closer to that of its neighbors when
outside costs are included.
While having a reliable, comparable figure is useful for policy makers and others,
any comparisons of states’ costs should be done carefully. (For an important discussion of the risks associated with such comparisons, see “Reducing Costs Safely”
on page 12.) After all, per-inmate costs do not measure how effective spending is.
They merely measure spending itself—and some states’ per-inmate costs are lower
because of factors that may result in collateral costs to society or other jurisdictions.
A few of these variables are as follows:

Per-inmate costs do
not measure how
effective spending
is. They merely
measure spending
itself.

>> Overcrowding: The per-inmate cost will likely be lower in states where
there is crowding, meaning that the inmate population exceeds the facilities’
rated capacity. In contrast, the per-inmate cost will likely be higher in states
that have reduced their prison populations but have not reduced operating
capacity to generate savings.
>> Greater incarceration of low-level offenders. Fewer staff are required in
minimum- and medium-security prisons that house low-level offenders. The
per-inmate cost for the entire state prison system may therefore be lower in
states that incarcerate a larger proportion of these individuals.
>> Use of local jails. Many states reimburse local jails to house statesentenced inmates. State reimbursement rates, however, often do not cover
the total cost of services because they are sometimes set by statute and are
not regularly updated to accommodate rising costs. Jails are also less likely
to provide inmate programming. The per-inmate cost may be lower in states
that rely heavily on local jails.
9

Figure 4: The Taxpayer Costs of State Prisons per Inmate,
Fiscal Year 2010

State

Taxpayer Cost
of Prisons
($ in 000s)

Average
Annual Cost
per Inmate

Alabama

26,758

$462,507

$17,285

Arizona

40,458

$1,003,553

$24,805

Arkansas

13,369

$326,081

$24,391

California

167,276

$7,932,388

$47,421

Colorado

19,958

$606,208

$30,374

Connecticut

18,492

$929,438

$50,262

Delaware

6,528

$215,210

$32,967

Florida

101,324

$2,082,531

$20,553

Georgia

53,704

$1,129,858

$21,039

Idaho

7,402

$144,669

$19,545

Illinois

45,551

$1,743,153

$38,268

Indiana

38,417

$569,451

$14,823

Iowa

8,384

$276,039

$32,925

Kansas

8,689

$158,198

$18,207

Kentucky

21,347

$311,727

$14,603

Louisiana

39,938

$698,363

$17,486

Maine

2,362

$132,906

$56,269

Maryland

21,786

$836,223

$38,383

Michigan

45,096

$1,267,954

$28,117

9,557

$395,319w

$41,364

30,447

$680,487

$22,350

Source: Vera Institute of Justice,
True Cost of Prisons survey. Taxpayer
costs include expenses funded by
state and federal revenue. Apparent
discrepancies are the result of rounding.
See the state fact sheets at www.vera.
org/priceofprisons for more details.

Minnesota

The corrections systems in Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island,
and Vermont have a unified structure,
meaning that jails and prisons are operated by the state rather than county
and state jurisdictions, respectively.
Thus, the prison expenditures in these
four states also include some of the
costs of jails. The figures Connecticut
and Vermont provided include inmates in both sentenced and accused
status. Delaware’s figures include all
expenditures in the Bureau of Prisons,
Bureau of Correctional Healthcare
Services, and Level IV facilities (workrelease centers and residential drug
treatment). The figures Rhode Island
provided exclude the costs of pretrial
incarceration in jail and community
confinement.

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New York

Missouri
Montana

2,513

$75,959

$30,227

Nebraska

4,542

$163,284

$35,950

Nevada

13,696

$282,903

$20,656

2,389

$81,417

$34,080

25,822

$1,416,727

$54,865

59,237

$3,558,711

$60,076

North Carolina

40,203

$1,204,667

$29,965

North Dakota

1,479

$58,065

$39,271

50,960

$1,315,477

$25,814

Ohio
Oklahoma

24,549

$453,356

$18,467

Pennsylvania

48,543

$2,055,269

$42,339

Rhode Island

3,502

$172,063

$49,133

Texas

154,576

$3,306,358

$21,390

Utah

6,338

$186,013

$29,349

Vermont

2,248

$111,280

$49,502

Virginia

29,792

$748,642

$25,129

Washington

17,050

$799,590

$46,897

West Virginia

6,385

$169,190

$26,498

Wisconsin
Total (40 states)

10

Average
Daily Inmate
Population

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

23,015

$874,421

$37,994

1,243,682

$38,935,653

$31,307

Cutting Costs, Maintaining Safety
As states continue to deal with unprecedented fiscal strain, most are taking steps
to reduce their inmate populations and costs while protecting public safety and
holding offenders accountable. Because the size of the inmate population is
determined by two factors—the number of admissions and length of stay—the
largest impact on prison budgets comes from changing sentencing and release
policies. In recent years, some states have changed these policies enough to close
parts of facilities or entire prisons, an essential step toward cost savings. The
only way for states to decrease their prison budgets substantially is to reduce the
inmate population and then reduce the operating capacity and related costs.10
Offenders who have not been convicted of new crimes but have broken the rules
of their probation or parole account for a significant number of prison admissions.
This has prompted many states to strengthen their efforts to combat recidivism by
holding offenders accountable for violations in the community at a fraction of the
cost of imprisonment.
In addition, virtually every state has reported taking measures to trim its operating costs and boost efficiency. These changes are important in both lean and fair fiscal times and can sometimes generate meaningful savings. But few if any states will
be able to reduce costs enough through these methods to reach their budget goals.
The growth of state corrections budgets has largely been the result of policy
choices, rather than broad social or economic trends beyond policy makers’
influence. Lawmakers can develop and implement policies and practices that
protect public safety and control correctional costs. Some recent state efforts
include the following:						

The largest impact
on prison budgets
comes from
changing sentencing
and release policies.

>> Sentencing and Release Policies: In 2010, as part of a sentencing
overhaul, South Carolina increased penalties for certain violent crimes
while restructuring controlled-substance offenses to provide community
supervision options for first- and second-time offenders not convicted of
trafficking offenses. Similar reforms in Kentucky in 2011 revised sentencing
laws for certain nonviolent offenses to better distinguish between serious
and lower-level crimes, including eliminating some penalty enhancements
for subsequent drug-possession offenses. A number of states, including
Alabama, California and Washington, have raised the threshold dollar
amounts for certain felony property crimes, in part to adjust for inflation
penalty levels that were set decades ago. 11
Other states have rolled back release policies that extended the amount of
time people spend in prison. Mississippi made perhaps the most remarkable
change, reducing in 2008 the percentage of sentences that nonviolent offenders must serve from 85 percent to 25 percent. This policy shift has substantially
reduced prison terms for thousands of people.12 Other states have expanded
“earned time” credits for inmates who complete programs designed to reduce
recidivism.13 In a 2010 survey of state corrections departments, Vera found that
at least 20 states had taken steps to moderate length of stay.14

11

REDUCING COSTS SAFELY
Operating a safe, secure, humane,
and well-programmed prison
can’t be done on the cheap. Prisons are, as sociologists say, “total
institutions” that provide everything necessary for inmates to
live there—some for the rest
of their lives. That includes adequate levels of uniformed security
staff at all times, food, programming, recreational and educational opportunities (all necessary
to manage facilities safely and
lower recidivism rates), infrastructure maintenance and upkeep,
and increasingly higher levels of
health care for a population with
significant levels of physical and
mental illness.
In this field then, the chief goal
is not necessarily to have low
per-inmate costs. In fact, states
that have very low per-inmate
costs should examine carefully
what functions of a good prison
may not be being provided
adequately. For instance, mental
health care for this population is
both expensive and crucial—not
only for the safety of inmates and
prison staff, but ultimately for
public safety as well.
State officials looking to reduce
prison expenditures can get only
so far by trimming per-inmate
costs. Far bigger savings can
come from proven steps that reserve incarceration for those who
most warrant it and reduce prison
populations by developing lowercost alternatives for others.

Finally, more than 15 states have engaged in “justice reinvestment,” a
comprehensive data-driven process that identifies opportunities to
reduce prison costs and reinvest part of the resulting savings into efforts that reduce recidivism. Texas and Kansas were among the first to
employ the approach in 2007. More recently, Arkansas, Kentucky, New
Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina have used the justice reinvestment approach with the goals of slowing prison growth and
using the savings or averted costs to strengthen alternatives to incarceration and contribute to overall state budget reductions.15
>> Recidivism-Reduction Strategies: Given that more than four in 10 prisoners return to custody within three years of release,16 many state policy
makers are stepping up efforts to reduce future criminal activity and
violations of probation and parole. Reducing recidivism offers significant
potential savings. Effective reentry planning begins by preparing people
for release as soon as they enter prison, using a thorough screening
instrument that helps staff identify priority areas for intervention and
develop case management plans. In Oregon and Michigan, for example,
community supervision officers communicate with inmates before their
release to describe the expectations for their behavior in the community
and establish continued programming priorities.17 States are also optimizing their resources by beginning supervision in the community with
a validated risk and needs assessment that helps assign offenders to the
appropriate level of supervision based on their risk of reoffending and
need for targeted services. Kentucky, Illinois, New Hampshire, Washington, and other states have recently codified the use of a risk and needs
assessment tool in statute.18
Since much recidivism occurs when offenders return to prison for technical violations—breaking the administrative rules of their communitybased supervision—several states are responding to these violations
with meaningful but less expensive consequences. Alternative sanctions
that are swift, certain, and proportional to the severity of the violation
are providing promising results. Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with
Enforcement (HOPE), for example, punishes rule breakers with a swift
and certain few days in jail for failed drug tests and other technical violations. Research has shown that HOPE has cut new arrests and positive
drug screens by more than 50 percent, while reducing probation revocations that result in prison terms.19
Finally, states are providing financial incentives for agencies that reduce
recidivism. Eight states, including California, Illinois, and South Carolina,
have passed laws that return to county probation agencies some of the
state savings that accrue when those agencies improve performance
and return fewer violators to state prison.20
>> Operating Efficiencies: In addition to adopting policies that address the
drivers of prison population growth, states are taking steps to ensure that

12

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

their correctional systems maximize operational efficiency. In 2010, at
least 32 states had either cut staff positions or instituted hiring freezes.21�
Many agencies that made these reductions exempted correctional
officers in the interest of staff and inmate safety. Other common budgetcutting measures include employing video surveillance in prisons, using
videoconferencing for court hearings to reduce transportation costs, and
instituting energy and fuel conservation efforts. Although enhancing
operating efficiency rarely sparks controversy, these changes may offer
agencies relatively little savings.
At least 15 states reported plans to close entire facilities, parts of facilities,
or reduce bed space in 2010.22�This is a critical step because reductions
in the prison population do not automatically translate into substantial
cost savings if corrections departments continue to operate with the
same number of staff.

Conclusion
In the current fiscal climate, states are increasingly forced to do more with less
and make difficult decisions about competing priorities. Policy makers must
have complete information to make the best decisions possible. They must
understand the full fiscal implications of their policy choices, particularly those
related to the criminal justice system, whose costs make up a significant part of
every state budget.
As a supplement to this report, fact sheets with detailed summaries about
each of the 40 states that completed the survey are available at www.vera.org/
priceofprisons. Interested policy makers and practitioners may also consult the
appendix of this report for the methodology and survey if in the future they
wish to update the figures presented in this report. This will be most useful for
states that have high prison costs outside the corrections department (such as
benefits for corrections employees). Notably, a number of these states have some
of the country’s largest inmate populations—including Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas—where more than 20 percent of prison costs fell outside the
corrections budget in 2010.
A growing body of research suggests—and government officials acknowledge—that beyond a certain point, further increases in incarceration have
significantly diminishing returns as a means of making communities safer.23�
This means that for many systems, putting more lower-risk offenders in prison
is yielding increasingly smaller improvements in public safety and may cost
more to taxpayers than the value of the crime it prevents. As states look to strike
a balance that results in better outcomes, it is essential to assess the benefits
and costs of incarceration. This report provides a tool to capture a more accurate
picture of these costs to taxpayers.

13

ENDNOTES
1	 Pew Center on the States, Prison Count
2010: State Population Declines for the First
Time in 38 Years (Washington, DC: The Pew
Charitable Trusts, April 2010).
2 	 Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind
Bars in America 2008 (Washington, DC: The
Pew Charitable Trusts, February 2008).
3 	 Analysis by Pew Center on the States based
on National Association of State Budget
Officers, “State Expenditure Report”
series, http://nasbo.org/Publications/
StateExpenditureReport/tabid/79/Default.
aspx (accessed December 1, 2011).
4 	 The advisers were John Cape, former New
York State budget director and managing
director of the PFM Group; David Eichenthal,
senior managing consultant of the PFM
Group; Dick Hickman, deputy staff director
for the Senate Finance Committee in the
Commonwealth of Virginia; Jun Peng,
associate professor in public administration
at the University of Arizona, and Michael
Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of
Justice. The methodology was piloted in
Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, and
Washington. Additionally, Kil Huh and David
Draine at the Pew Center on the States
provided feedback on the methodology to
calculate the underfunding of pension and
retiree health care contributions.
5 	 Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi,
New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota,
Tennessee, and Wyoming did not complete
the survey. The South Carolina Department
of Corrections was unable to certify the state
data submitted prior to publication of this
report.
6 	 Fiscal year 2010, is the year ending June 30,
2010 in most states. The exceptions are New
York (fiscal year ends March 31), Texas (August
31), and Michigan and Alabama (September
30).
7 	 Vera obtained pension and retiree health care
data from the fiscal year 2010 Consolidated
Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for each
pension and retiree health care plan (except
in Georgia, for which Vera used 2009 data).
Vera obtained statewide administrative
cost data from each state’s Statewide Cost
Allocation Plan (SWCAP) for fiscal year 2009,
which was usually the most recent data
publicly available. Vera obtained data from a
different year for Alabama (2007), Connecticut
(2008), Georgia (2005), Iowa (2010), Maine
(2008), Maryland (2008), Minnesota (2008),
North Carolina (2005), Pennsylvania (2008),
Tennessee (2008), Texas (2007), Vermont
(2010), Virginia (2008), West Virginia (2005).

14

8 	 Vera could not obtain all the costs outside
the corrections department. For each of the
following cost centers, the number of states
for which costs were not estimated is in
parentheses: Employee benefits (2), retiree
health care contributions (3), capital costs (8),
legal costs (7), hospital care (2), education and
training (2), unfunded pension contributions
(2), and unfunded retiree health care
contributions (3). Among the 40 states that
participated in the survey, a total of 187 costs
were paid outside the corrections department
(see Figure 1). Survey respondents and Vera
researchers were able to obtain the amounts
for 158 of these costs, but not for 29 others in
18 states. The 18 states for which Vera could
not obtain all costs outside the corrections
budget are as follows—and the number of
costs per state that were not estimated is
in parentheses: Arizona (1), California (1),
Connecticut (4), Idaho (2), Indiana (1), Iowa
(1), Maine (1) Michigan (2), Missouri (1), New
Hampshire (4), New Jersey (1), New York (1),
North Carolina (2), Pennsylvania (1), Rhode
Island (1), Texas (1), Virginia (3), and West
Virginia (1). For more details, see the state
fact sheets at www.vera.org/priceofprisons.
9 	 The average per-inmate cost ($31,307) was
calculated by dividing the total taxpayer cost
of prisons in 40 states ($38,935,652,963) by
the total number of inmates in these states
(1,243,682). The average per-inmate cost in
these 40 states—i.e., the average of the 40
per-inmate costs tabulated in Figure 4—is
$32,226). The total number of inmates in 50
state prisons (1.4 million) was obtained from
the Pew Center on the States’ report Prison
Count 2010, p. 1.
10 	 When states close prisons or parts of prisons,
only the marginal cost can be eliminated. The
marginal cost is composed of variable costs,
and, if prison capacity is reduced sufficiently,
step-fixed costs. Variable costs include
expenses such as food, clothing, and medical
care. Step-fixed costs include staff salaries
and benefits when prison capacity is reduced
enough to reduce staffing (for example,
if a housing unit closes). The marginal
cost is lower than the average cost, which
also includes the fixed costs of operating
prisons (such as debt service and central
administration). This report presents states’
average per-inmate cost. Potential savings
will be overstated if the average costs in this
report are used to calculate the savings of a
reduction in prison capacity.

12	 JFA Institute, Reforming Mississippi’s Prison
System (Washington, DC: JFA Institute),
2. http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/
uploadedFiles/wwwpewcenteronthestatesorg/
Initiatives/PSPP/MDOCPaper.pdf?n=8407
(accessed December 13, 2011).
13 	 Vera Institute of Justice, The Continuing Fiscal
Crisis in Corrections (New York: Vera Institute
of Justice, 2010), 17.
14 	 Ibid.
15 	 The advancement of justice reinvestment
has been a policy goal of both the federal
government and private funders. The U.S.
Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice
Assistance and the Pew Center on the
States’ Public Safety Performance Project
have offered support to many states in
recent years. Funding for such work is
often directed to research and technical
assistance organizations as well as states.
Vera has received some of this funding and
provided technical assistance to a number
of states, including Alabama, Delaware,
and Louisiana. For more information about
justice reinvestment, see http://www.vera.org/
project/justice-reinvestment-initiative.
16 	 Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism:
The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons
(Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts,
2011), 2.
17 	 Ibid., p. 19.
18 	 Vera Institute of Justice, Criminal Justice
Trends: Key Legislative Changes in
Sentencing Policy, 2001–2010 (New York: Vera
Institute of Justice, 2010), 10.
19 	 Pew Center on the States, The Impact
of Hawaii’s HOPE Program on Drug Use,
Crime and Recidivism (Washington, DC: The
Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010). http://www.
pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/
PSPP_HOPE_Brief_web.pdf?n=8765
(accessed December 13, 2011).
20 	 For more information about performance
incentive funding programs, see http://www.
vera.org/project/performance-incentivefunding.
21 	 Vera Institute of Justice, The Continuing Fiscal
Crisis in Corrections, 2010, p. 11.
22 	 Ibid.

11 	 Vera Institute of Justice, Criminal Justice
Trends: Key Legislative Changes in
Sentencing Policy, 2001–2010 (New York:
Vera Institute of Justice, 2010), 6.

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

23 	 Pew Center on the States, One in 31:
The Long Reach of American Corrections
(Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts,
March 2009), 18-19.

Appendix A: Methodology
This section describes how Vera calculated the total cost of prisons presented
in this report. This methodology, along with the survey (Appendix B), provides
the information necessary for states to calculate these costs on their own. Vera
calculated the total cost of prisons by analyzing expenses funded through all
state and federal revenue sources in fiscal year 2010. The actual cost of any
activity is best calculated by examining expenses already incurred and not
budgets for the current year, because government expenditures typically vary
from the budgets enacted.
For this report, Vera collected prison costs, in corrections departments and
beyond, through a survey of the departments of corrections in all 50 states.1
Vera then used publicly available data on the costs of underfunded contributions
to pensions and retiree health care and on indirect costs to state administrative
agencies. Analysts estimated the costs of contributions to pensions and retiree
health care for states that could not provide these amounts.
The survey first asked respondents to provide the amount the department
of corrections spent on state prisons, subtracting any expenditures on services
such as probation, parole, and juvenile justice, if applicable. (The survey defined
prisons as residential facilities that hold sentenced adult offenders in state
custody.) Prison costs include state expenses for the operation of state-run
prisons, privately operated prisons, and any payments to local jails or other
states for housing state-sentenced inmates.
The survey then asked states to indicate whether portions of the following nine
costs were provided outside the corrections department:
>> contributions for pension benefits;
>> contributions for retiree health care benefits;
>> other fringe benefits, such as health insurance, and taxes, such as social security;
>> capital costs for prison construction and renovation;
>> legal judgments and claims, as well as contributions to the state tort fund;
>> expenses for private prisons;
>> hospital care for inmates;
>> educational and job training programs for inmates; and
>> any other costs outside the corrections budget, if applicable.
If states funded any of these costs outside their corrections budget, survey respondents were asked to provide the total of each cost. If the respondents did not
have this information, they were asked to refer Vera researchers to a contact at the
relevant state agency.
1	 Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, and
Wyoming did not participate in the survey. The South Carolina Department of Corrections was unable
to certify the state data submitted prior to publication of this report.

15

In many states, calculating the total cost of prisons also requires estimating the
cost of underfunded contributions to pensions and retiree health care as well as
indirect prison-related costs to state administrative agencies.
The remainder of this section describes the methods used to estimate the cost of
underfunded pension and retiree health care benefits. (One method also provided
a means to calculate the actual contribution for these benefits when states were
unable to provide this information.) It also describes the methods used to identify
indirect costs of prisons to state administrative agencies and the method used to
calculate capital costs in some states that could not provide this information.

PENSIONS AND RETIREE HEALTH CARE
Pension benefits are periodic income payments made to employees upon retirement.2 These benefits are paid by a trust fund that is financed through employers
and, in most states, through employee contributions and the investment returns
on them. Pensions are pre-funded so that contributions made during employment
provide for retirement benefits.
Many states also provide retirees with other post-employment benefits (OPEB)
in addition to retirement benefits. Retiree subsidies for health insurance premiums are the largest component of OPEB, although some states provide dental and
vision care as well as life, disability, and long-term-care insurance. 3�Like pensions,
these benefits are deferred compensation, meaning that they are earned in the
present and paid in the future. They are different from pension benefits in that
they are not usually pre-funded through a trust fund, but are funded on a payas-you-go basis. This means that current revenues pay for current retirees and no
savings or investment income finances future benefits.
To calculate the total cost of prisons, two questions regarding pension and
retiree health care costs must be answered: first, does the corrections department
pay the state’s contribution for pension and retiree health care benefits for corrections employees? Second, does the state’s annual contribution to these benefits
provide the total amount necessary to fully fund these benefits in the long run?
Corrections departments answered the first question in the state survey. The
second was answered by reviewing publicly available financial reports for each
state’s pension and retiree health care plans.4
The annual government contribution necessary to ensure that total assets can
pay for retirement benefits in the long run is called the annual required contribution. So long as the government fully funds the annual required contribution—and
future economic conditions meet the assumptions used to calculate this figure—

2	 The benefit rules are different in every state, but in general, the amount of the benefit is determined
by multiplying the employee’s final salary by the number of years of service and a benefit multiplier.
For example, in a plan with a benefit multiplier of 2 percent, an employee with a final salary of
$60,000 and 30 years of service will receive an annual pension benefit of $36,000 ($60,000 multiplied
by 30 multiplied by 2 percent).
3	 Jun Peng, State and Local Pension Fund Management (New York: CRC Press, 2009), 211.
4	 See endnote 7 on page 14.

16

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

the state will have sufficient assets to cover future pension or retiree health care
benefits. From the taxpayer’s perspective, the annual required contribution is the
true annual cost of pensions and retiree health care. Although most states do not
pre-fund retiree health care benefits through a trust fund, states calculate the
annual required contribution for these benefits so they can report their long-term
financial obligations.
Many states, however, contribute less than the annual required contribution for
pension and retiree health care benefits. In fiscal year 2009, states paid, on average, 83 percent of the required contribution for pension benefits and 36 percent
of the required contribution for retiree health care benefits.5�This means that the
government’s contributions for pensions and retiree health care—that is, the funds
actually spent—were lower than the true costs of these benefits in 2009. Thus, in
states that did not fully fund the annual required contribution, the employer contribution for all state employees understates the true cost of retirement benefits by
shifting it to the future.6�
Every year, administrators of benefit plans calculate the annual required contribution as well as the percentage of this amount that the state actually paid and
publish these figures in a Consolidated Annual Financial Report (CAFR) according
to a standardized reporting framework issued by the Government Accounting
Standards Board (GASB).7 These reports are available online to the public. 8�GASB
is an independent organization that establishes the standards of accounting and
financial reporting for state and local governments in the United States, to provide
greater transparency to readers of government financial documents.
Plan administrators provide this information for the pension or retiree health
care plan, and this data can be used to determine annual required contribution
and the underfunding of contributions to pensions and retiree health care for
corrections employees.

5	 Pew Center on the States, The Widening Gap: The Great Recession’s Impact on State Pension and
Retiree Health Care Costs. (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011), 2, 5.
6	 Peng, 2009, p. 143.
7	 In 1994, Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued two statements: Statement 25,
Financial Reporting for Defined Benefit Pension Plans and Note Disclosure for Defined Contribution
Plans and Statement 27, Accounting for Pensions by State and Local Government Employers. These
publications established the standards of financial accounting and reporting for public pension plans.
In 2004, Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) issued two statements: Statement 43,
Financial Reporting for Postemployment Benefit Plans Other Than Pension Plans, and Statement 45,
Accounting and Financial Reporting by Employers for Postemployment Benefits Other Than Pensions,
to set standards for financial reporting on OPEB. These two statements are substantially similar to
Statements 25 and 27 in terms of reporting standards. See Peng 2009, p. 75, for more information on
financial reporting standards.
8	 Vera researchers downloaded CAFRs for each state (and its pension plan) surveyed for this report.
Data reported in the various CAFRs for major public pension plans are also accessible in the Public
Plans Database, produced by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, http://pubplans.
bc.edu/ (accessed December 1, 2011). The authors are not aware of a similar public database that
aggregates financial reporting for other post-employment benefits.

17

UNDERFUNDING OF PENSIONS
AND RETIREE HEALTH CARE
For each state, Vera used one of two methods to calculate the cost of underfunding the annual required contribution for corrections employees. Method A, which
is the most accurate method of calculation, requires data on the actual pension or
retiree health care contribution for corrections employees.9 �Method B estimates
the cost of underfunding by using the total corrections payroll as an input and
was used when department pension contribution data was not available.10 See the
detailed description of each method below.
Method A. Vera used this method when survey respondents provided the
amount contributed to pensions and/or retiree health care for corrections employees. To calculate the cost of underfunding the annual required contribution for
corrections employees, Vera obtained data for the percentage contributed from the
Schedule of Employer Contributions in the Consolidated Annual Financial Report
(CAFR) for the pension and retiree health care plan in each state.
For example, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections contributed $36.7 million for employee pensions in 2010. As a whole, however, the state
contributed only 87.2 percent of the total annual required contribution. The total
annual required contribution for corrections is calculated by dividing the actual
contribution for corrections employees ($36.7 million) by the percentage contributed (87.2 percent). The result, $42.1 million, is the annual required contribution for
corrections employees. The difference between $42.1 million and $36.7 million, or
$5.4 million, was the cost of underfunded pension contributions for corrections
employees in 2010.
Method B. Survey respondents from some states were not able to provide the
amount contributed to pensions or retiree health care for corrections employees because these costs were either not in their department’s budget or were
commingled with contributions for other benefits. In these cases, Vera calculated the total cost of pensions or retiree health care for corrections employees
using survey data for the corrections payroll (total staff salary). Analysts then
obtained the total payroll amount covered by the pension or retiree health care
plan—called the covered payroll—from the Schedule of Funding Progress and
the annual required contribution, from the Schedule of Employer Contributions
in the pension or retiree health care plan’s CAFR.

9	 “Corrections employees” refers to the employees who are responsible for the operations of prisons.
These employees also include administrative staff whose salaries are allocated to prison costs.
10	 Because corrections departments usually make the payment for pension contributions and were able
to provide data on them, Vera used Method A to calculate the cost of underfunded pension contributions for all states except Illinois and Texas. Because retiree health care contributions are typically paid
outside the corrections department and Vera could not obtain those amounts, analysts used Method
B to calculate the cost of retiree health care contributions and underfunded retiree health care contributions for most states (except for Alabama, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, Nevada,
Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Washington, and West Virginia).

18

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

In Illinois, for example, the corrections payroll for prison employees was $573.3
million and the total covered payroll for the pension plan was $4.1 billion. This
means that corrections personnel account for 13.9 percent of the payroll covered
by the pension plan ($573.3 million divided by $4.1 billion equals .139). This figure
was multiplied by the state’s annual required contribution for the entire pension
plan—which is $1.2 billion—to calculate the annual required contribution for
corrections employees ($163.8 million).
In 2010, the state of Illinois contributed 93.1 percent of the annual amount
required to fully fund pension benefits in the long run. Thus, the actual pension
contribution for corrections employees was $152.5 million ($163.8 million
multiplied by .931). The difference between $163.8 million and $152.5 million,
$11.3 million, was the cost of underfunded pension contributions for corrections
employees in 2010.
The weakness of this approach is that it assumes that the cost of retirement
benefits for prison employees is equivalent to the cost for other plan members.
This may not be the case for two reasons. First, corrections employees may end
their careers with a final salary and number of years of service that differ, on
average, from other plan members. Second, in some plans, corrections employees
have more generous pension benefits than other plan members. Method A is the
preferred approach because of these limitations. Method B, however, can provide
a reasonable, if less precise, estimate when data on the actual contribution for
corrections employees is unavailable.
It is important to note that these two methodologies estimate the underfunding of required pension and retiree health care contributions based on funding
estimates that each state’s actuaries calculated. There is significant debate, however, about the economic assumptions that states use. Many economists believe
that assumptions regarding forecasted investment returns are too optimistic
and that greater employer or employee contributions will be necessary in the
future to fully fund scheduled benefits.11�Therefore, the costs of underfunded
retiree benefits calculated in this report may be conservative.
Future retiree health care benefits do not have the same protections as future
pension benefits. Pension benefits are usually considered a contractual right and
are protected by state constitutions, court rulings, and statutes. The legal protections for retiree health care benefits are not as strong in some states.12 Thus, in
some states, it is possible that future retiree health care costs could be reduced by
reducing benefits. This does not negate the fact, however, that these costs have
been incurred under current law.

11	 Pew Center on the States, The Widening Gap (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011).
12	 Peng, 2009, p. 223.

19

STATEWIDE ADMINISTRATIVE COSTS
In addition to the direct costs states pay for prison operations, they also incur
indirect costs related to prisons. These costs are for centrally administered
services that are necessary for a department to function but benefit more than
one department.13�For example, many states provide certain administrative
services—such as legal, group purchasing, and human resources—to agencies on
a centralized basis.14�In some instances, the benefiting agencies are billed for the
services provided centrally. Because billed expenses are charged to these agencies,
the costs are included in the agencies’ annual spending (that is, agencies pay for
the centrally administered services from their budgets). However, administrative
expenses that are not billed to the benefiting agencies are not captured by each
agency’s spending figures. These are called “allocated” indirect costs.
Allocated indirect costs for all state agencies, including corrections, are
calculated annually and submitted to the federal government in a Statewide
Cost Allocation Plan (SWCAP). This document lists the central services billed
directly to the agencies and those services that are not billed to them.
Each state’s cost allocation plan is available from the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services’ Division of Cost Allocation.15 The accounting of allocated
indirect costs, by department, is provided on Schedule A. Indirect costs amount
to only a fraction of total statewide spending, but are necessary to calculate the
total cost of prison operations.16

CAPITAL COSTS
The total cost of prisons also includes the cost of purchasing and rehabilitating
the capital assets that support the prison system. Capital assets are goods such as
buildings, equipment, and land that have a useful life of many years after their
initial purchase.17�

13	 Billy L. Wayson; and Gail S. Funke, What Price Justice? A Handbook for the Analysis of Criminal
Justice Costs (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 1989, NCJ
106777).
14	 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Cost Principles and Procedures for Establishing Cost Allocation Plans and Indirect Cost Rates for Agreements with the Federal Government
(Washington, DC: HHS, 1997). http://rates.psc.gov/fms/dca/asmb%20c-10.pdf (accessed December
1, 2011).
15	 Statewide Cost Allocation Plans are available at http://rates.psc.gov/fms/dca/dca_swcap.html
(accessed December 1, 2011).
16	 States’ allocated indirect costs cannot be compared because the distinction between billed and
allocated cost varies by state. Additionally, the methodology states use to apportion allocated costs
among the benefitting agencies is not standardized. The guidelines are governed by OMB Circular
A-87, but are not uniform across the states.
17	 National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Capital Budgeting in the States (Washington,
DC: NASBO, 1999).

20

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

States often borrow from the public by issuing bonds
to provide the funding necessary for large projects
and then pay off this debt over a period of years. This
payment is called debt service and consists of regular
payments of principal and interest in a manner similar
to a home mortgage. The payment period usually
coincides with the useful life of the asset.
The costs of debt service are often budgeted outside
the corrections department but are nonetheless a part
of the total cost of prison. Although many states were
able to provide these data, some states—including
Illinois and Georgia—were not, because the cost of debt
service for prisons is bundled with other debt. For
these states, Vera estimated the cost of debt service for
prisons by prorating the state’s total debt-service costs
by calculating the proportion of debt authorized
for corrections.
For example, Illinois finances capital costs for
prisons by issuing general obligation bonds that also
finance other state capital projects. In 2010, the debt
service for general obligation bonds was $350 million.
To estimate the prison-related share of that amount,
Vera used the proportion of general obligation debt
that is authorized for prisons. Of the $8.9 billion in
general obligation debt, $1.6 billion, or 18.5 percent, is
authorized for corrections. Thus, the cost of corrections
debt service was calculated to be $64.8 million, 18.5
percent of the $350 million in total debt service for
those bonds in 2010.18�

A CLOSER LOOK AT CAPITAL COST
CALCULATIONS
Although most states finance capital purchases though
debt (which they repay through debt service after a
prison is built), some capital costs are paid with current
revenues, meaning that the entire cost of the project
is paid up front (the “pay-as-you-go” approach).
In states that finance capital assets with current
revenues—whether these costs are inside or outside
the corrections department—the total cost of prisons in
2010 is understated in this report because prior capital
investment appears to be “free” in the current period
even though the assets remain in use. Similarly, capital
costs will be overstated in years when states make new
investments, because the cost of an asset, which will
have a useful life of many years, will be erroneously
attributed to only one year of use. Thus capital costs
cannot be compared between states that finance capital
costs through debt and current revenues.
Vera found that capital costs were not typically funded
through current revenues when these costs are funded
outside the corrections budget. Only four states (Arizona,
New Jersey, Nebraska, and North Dakota) reported that
a portion of their prison-related capital costs outside the
corrections budget were funded with current revenues.
The survey for this study did not ask whether capital costs
within the corrections budget are funded through current
revenues or debt service. This issue merits consideration
and further analysis in states that have made substantial
capital investments through current revenues.

18	 This approach was developed in consultation with James Prichard, manager of capital markets for the
State of Illinois, Governor’s Office of Management and Budget. Section 3 of the General Obligation
Bond Act provides the authorization for debt for correctional facilities. http://www.ilga.gov/
legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=508&ChapterID=7 (accessed December 1, 2011).

21

Appendix B: Survey

22

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

23

Acknowledgments
We would like to thank the advisers we consulted on the methodology for this
project—John Cape, David Eichenthal, Dick Hickman, Jun Peng, and Michael
Jacobson—and the state agencies that helped refine the survey: Louisiana
Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Illinois Department of Corrections,
New York State Department of Correctional Services, Washington State
Department of Corrections, Florida Department of Corrections, and the Florida
Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Thank you to
Michele Levine and Joyanne Gibson at the New York City Office of Management
and Budget for their guidance with cost allocation plans. Thank you to Valerie
Levshin and Michael Woodruff, who contributed to the production of the report
as data analysts during the pilot phase. Thank you also to Adam Gelb, Samantha
Harvell, and Ryan King at the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew
Center on the States for their helpful review of earlier drafts of this report, and to
Kil Huh and David Draine at the Pew Center on the States for their feedback on
the methodology and for providing data on funding levels for retiree health care
plans. Finally, we’d like to thank Jeanne Criscola of Criscola Design for designing
the fact sheets.

24

THE PRICE OF PRISONS: WHAT INCARCERATION COSTS TAXPAYERS

© 2012 Vera Institute of Justice. All rights reserved.
Edited by Jules Verdone.
Additional copies are available from the Vera Institute of Justice, 233 Broadway, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10279, (212) 334-1300.
An electronic version of the report and 40 state fact sheets are available online at www.vera.org/priceofprisons.
For more information about the Center on Sentencing and Corrections, contact the center’s director, Peggy McGarry, at
pmcgarry@vera.org.
The Vera Institute of Justice is an independent nonprofit organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects,
and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.

Suggested Citation
Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration
Costs Taxpayers. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2012.

This project was funded by the Public Safety
Performance Project of the Pew Center on
the States.

233 Broadway, 12th Floor

Tel: (212) 334-1300

New York, NY 10279

Fax: (212) 941-9407
www.vera.org

 

 

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