Americans Spend $260 Each to Keep People in Prison

The U.S. crime rate may be way down, but incarceration (and its hefty price tag) continues to go up.

America – the land of the free – has the world’s largest prison population. And the cost of incarceration in the U.S. is steep.

According to a new report from The Hamilton Project, incarceration in America comes with an annual $80 billion price tag. It may be hard to grasp the enormity of that cost, but if you break it down, keeping people in prison costs each U.S. resident $260 per year, CBS News said.

The cost of corrections is even more difficult to stomach when you consider that the overall rate for violent and property crimes has gone down 45 percent in the last 20 years. CBS said:

“For every prisoner there are costs and benefits to incarceration,” said Ben Harris, a co-author of “Ten Economic Facts about Crime and Incarceration in the United States.” “For someone who has committed a violent offense, we as a society can agree it’s worth putting this person in prison.”

But when it comes to “putting a person in prison to reduce the chance they will commit a low-level crime, such as dealing a small amount of drugs, the benefits aren’t as obvious,” Harris said.

A number of factors have led to the explosion in the prisoner population, including mandatory sentencing policies, repeat-offender laws and increased criminalization of drug-related activity, CBS said.

Nearly 1 in 100 adults are in prison or jail in the U.S. – a rate five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and other democracies, according to The Washington Post. Even with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is home to nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, which hardly gives us bragging rights. What’s more, the Post said:

Today, minorities constitute 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Men under the age of 40, the poorly educated, people with mental illness and drug and alcohol addicts are also over-represented.

Blacks in particular have been disproportionately arrested for drug crimes.

The National Research Council recently released a lengthy report on incarceration is the U.S. that essentially concludes that “all of its costs – for families, communities, state budgets and society – have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction,” the Post said.

The report suggests that the U.S. needs to consider the following when discussing criminal justice policy:

  • Sentencing for criminal offenses should be in proportion to their seriousness.
  • The period of confinement should be based on achieving the goals of the sentencing.
  • “The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one’s fundamental status as a member of society.”

How do you feel about footing $260 of the prison bill on an annual basis? Share your thoughts below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

I know... every site you visit wants you to subscribe to their newsletter. But our news and advice is actually worth reading! For 25 years, I've been making people richer without making their eyes glaze over. Take 5 seconds and join our family by clicking here. You'll be glad you did. I guarantee it!

More Money Talks News


  • smokey347

    you do have a point but what is the cost of letting them out? sometimes it is a person’s life.

  • Jack Mabry

    If they commit a violent crime, or are a pedophile, send them to prison for a long time. Otherwise, try probation.

  • Jack Anderson

    As a retired police officer, I witnessed first hand how some of these “low level crimes” you talk about effected the victims. Why should the criminal get out in a few years when the victims are still traumatized many years later. Yes we all agree that somone who murders another person or is a rapist or a pedophile should be locked away forever. But the person who provides drugs to someone, which in turn causes that person to committ robberies, burglaries and such, is just as responsible as the person committing the robberies and burglaries. These people (drug seller) also do not discriminate between selling to adults or minors. Have you ever gone into a home where the child (of any age) has stolen everything of value to sell for pennies on the dollar to get another hit of their drug of choice? It isn’t something you will ever want to see. The rest of the family is living in hell, including grandparents and other relatives. As far a the demographics of the prison population, it is what it is. I worked with and talked to many parole and probation officers who just scratch their heads because there is nothing they can do to help most of theses people. Yes there are a few who make the change and become productive members of society, but the vast majority (75% or more) do not. So, for $260, it is money well spent to keep these individuals in prison.

    • T-Bone

      Blacks are 12% of the US population but make up 45% of the prison population: A black man receives a 15-20 mandatory sentence for being caught with crack cocaine however his white male counterpart gets caught with the same amount of cocaine and he receives 5 years probation. Taking that into consideration the brightest thing you could come up with in response to the disproportionate prison population is, ‘it is what it is’, well let me ask you, ‘What is it?’.

Check Out Our Hottest Deals!

We're always adding new deals and coupons that'll save you big bucks. See the deals to the right and hundreds more in our Deals section.

Click here to explore 2,066 more deals!