Societal Bankruptcy

Mass incarceration could be costing the United States over $1 trillion a year

Getty Images/National Geographic

It’s commonly said that mass incarceration costs the United States $80 billion a year. That figure is based on how much the country spends solely on prisons themselves (though even this accounting has been called into question). However, new research published in July by professors at Washington University argues that this number is misleading, and doesn’t factor in many other costs brought about by mass incarceration, including those paid by the prisoners, their families, children, and community at large. The actual fiscal cost of mass incarceration, the research claims, is more than $1 trillion.

“For every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional ten dollars in social costs,” the researchers write. They estimate that these include $70.5 billion in lost wages; $5 billion from the interest on debt that families of the incarcerated go into; and $30 billion from the depressing effect that having an incarcerated parent has on their children’s education levels.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, in his October 2015 Atlantic cover story “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”:

“An array of laws, differing across the country but all emanating from our tendency toward punitive criminal justice—limiting or banning food stamps for drug felons; prohibiting ex-offenders from obtaining public housing—ensure this. So does the rampant discrimination against ex-offenders and black men in general. This, too, is self-reinforcing. The American population most discriminated against is also its most incarcerated—and the incarceration of so many African Americans, the mark of criminality, justifies everything they endure after.”

A 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center focused more extensively on the effects of incarceration on the families, finding that 83 percent of the financial costs of mass incarceration are borne by women, who pay an average of over $13,000 in court fees a year.