Report

The Price of Prisons

What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers

quick summary

This January 2012 report, updated March, 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.


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.

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