Nation Pays Huge Bill for Criminal Justice System -- $167 Billion a Year, Says Justice Department 5/7/04

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Americans paid out a record $167 billion to operate the nation's swollen criminal justice system in 2001, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported Monday. While the BJS report did not address the role of drug prohibition in generating the massive spending, drug law enforcement contributes a sizeable share of that figure with about 1.5 million drug arrests nationwide in 2001 and drug offenders making up roughly one-quarter of all inmates in the nation's jails and prisons.

In 2001, every man, woman, and child in the United States paid $586 to finance the criminal justice system, including $254 per person for police protection, $200 per person to pay for prisons, and $130 per person for court and legal services. All that money provided jobs for almost 2.3 million people, including more than 1.1 million cops and nearly 750,000 prison guards.

The 2001 figure for total criminal justice spending, both in the states and federally, is the highest yet, but only the latest in a long line of increasing criminal justice budgets that date back to President Reagan's declaration of a real war on drugs in the 1980s. And prison spending is driving the increases. In 1982, BJS reported, prison spending was at $9.6 billion; by 2001, it had increased to $57 billion. Such increases are the inevitable consequence of criminal justice policies that have caused the number of prisoners in jail and prison to triple since 1985.

Indeed, criminal justice spending has increased at an annual 8% rate overall since the current binge began in the heady days of the Reagan Revolution. Spending in 2001 jumped more than $20 billion over 1999 levels, and per capita spending is now double what it was in 1982, the BJS reported.

Southern Correctional Institution, Troy, NC
While spending increases have also occurred in policing and court costs, they have increased at a lower level than corrections costs. While the number of prisoners being held has increased 300% since the early 1980s, the total number of arrests increased by less than 15% (from 12 million in 1982 to 13.7 million in 2001) and the number of court cases grew by less than 10% (from 86 million in 1982 to 92.8 million in 2001). Clearly, the resort to more and longer prison sentences is the primary factor driving up criminal justice costs in the United States.

"The first time I stood up and gave a public speech about the drug war back in 1997, I said it was a fraud," said Nora Callahan, director of the drug reform group the November Coalition (, which focuses on freeing drug war prisoners. "That is even more true today. We spend all that money, and we're getting nothing for it but the destruction of people, families, and communities," she told DRCNet. "It doesn't matter if the crime rates are down -- there is a prison-industrial complex to keep propped up and running, and they can't keep it full without the war on drugs."

"These figures really point out the dramatic disjuncture between absolute crime levels and how we are spending our money," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project (, a Washington, DC-based group seeking alternatives to incarceration. "This is primarily the result of a policy shift in how we use the courts and the criminal justice system. We have made policy choices that result in more people going to prison and staying there longer," he told DRCNet. "That's why we are in this ironic situation, where crime went down in the 1990s but the prison population continued to increase. This tells us pretty clearly that we can control the size of the prison system and the amount of prison spending if policymakers choose to do so. But instead, they have made a set of decisions consciously aimed at expanding the system regardless of crime rates."

"We have been spending a lot of money for a long time, and this is starting to be felt in the states, if not the federal government," Mauer continued. "Fifteen years ago, they thought they could both build prisons and fund education, but now people realize they can't do both. Do you expand the prison system or do you fund basic services? In a number of states, this has already led to reconsideration of sentencing and drug policies," he pointed out. "This is happening not only because of the budget situation, but because there is also a growing recognition, particularly regarding substance abuse, that prison is not necessarily the best response. There is a greater public acceptance of a range of options for dealing with social problems, and more sophistication about the balance between prison spending and spending for other social needs."

If there are signs of sanity in the state legislatures now, said Mauer, there is little indication that it is catching on at the federal level. "In the federal system, the changes have outpaced even those in the states," he said. "At the federal level, neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown any interest in recent years in revisiting the sentencing and drug policies that have led to these record increases. The cost of incarceration is proportionately a much smaller part of the federal budget, so they don't feel it as much. And there is also the perception that sounding tough on crime is good politics, a perception that these days in more true in Washington than in state capitals."

More BJS report factoids:

  • State and local governments take the bulk of criminal justice spending, combining for 85% of all expenditures while the federal government accounts for 15%.
  • Justice activities accounted for 7% of all state and local government spending, about the same as spent on health and hospitals. By comparison, states and localities spent 30% of their budges on education and 14% on public welfare.
  • New York state leads in the percentage of justice system employees, with 94 per 10,000 inhabitants, while West Virginia was lowest at 42 per 10,000.
  • New York state also leads in sworn law enforcement officers per capita, with 39 per 10,000 population, while Vermont had the lowest figure, with 15 per 10,000 inhabitants.
  • New York state tied with Texas for the highest number of prison guards per capita at 32.7 per 10,000 population, while West Virginia once again took last place with only 9.1 per 10,000.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States," is available at online.

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Issue #336, 5/7/04 Editorial: Priorities and Principles | Nation Pays Huge Bill for Criminal Justice System -- $167 Billion a Year, Says Justice Department | Setback for State, Federal Pain Pill Offensive: Florida Prescription Monitoring Bill Dies in House | Million Marijuana Marches: Tranquility in New York, Thousands in Toronto, First Time in Sweden, Troubles in South America | Announcing: "The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War" -- New Compendium by Sheriff Masters Features David Borden and Numerous Other Thinkers on Drug Policy | Newsbrief: Australian Greens Call for Uniform Marijuana Laws | Newsbrief: Marijuana Initiative Campaign Underway in Columbia, Missouri | Newsbrief: MPP Files New Challenge to Drug Czar's Nevada Campaigning | Newsbrief: DEA Agent Demonstrates Gun Safety to School Kids -- By Shooting Himself | Newsbrief: Justice Department Investigating National Drug Intelligence Center | Newsbrief: Prison Building Binge Skews Census Figures, Shifts Benefits and Political Power, Study Says | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar

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