Total Costs for Local Jails Are Seriously Understated, New Study Says

What does it cost taxpayers to run a local jail? Unless your hobby is studying local government budgets, you probably have little or no idea what the actual figure might be, but you no doubt believe it ought to be a statistic easy to look up, right?

But, says a recent report from a non-profit think-tank, the Vera Institute of Justice, the number is far from easy to come up with — and it’s almost surely more, maybe much more, than you would guess. The group, assisted by finance officials for jails in six different jurisdictions, drew up a detailed survey and sent it to a large cross-section of locally-run jails that house about 730,000 inmates, male and female, typically either awaiting trial or serving sentences of a year or less. The responses, from 35 county and city jail systems housing about 9% of local jail inmates, were illuminating.

Back in 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) estimated local communities that year would spend $22.2 billion on their jails. That’s an impressive amount of cash: about four times the amount ($5.7 billion) DOJ estimated communities spent on their jails in 1983, reflecting a total inmate population that had soared from 223,500 to 735,600.

But, as documented in the new report issued by the Vera Institute in May, The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration, even the $22.2 billion figure substantially understates local governments’ actual outlays for community jails. That’s because local governments differ widely on funding sources and on how large a share of outlays for jail operations come from the budget of the agency operating the jails. Often, major components of jail operations are funded through different agencies.

In New York City jails — admittedly an extreme example, in population size, unusually high percentage of prisoners held on federal charges, and in cost structure — about 5/6ths of total outlays go for wages, fringe benefits (equal to about 75% of the wage bill), and pensions; none of these items are part of the city’s correction department budget. Similarly, inmate healthcare is delivered and funded by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In four other major areas – capital maintenance and improvements; administrative costs; legal judgments and payments; and educational or other programs for inmates — all or part of outlays came from sources outside the city’s corrections agency’s budget. In fact, the Vera report estimates 53.6% of the city jails’ total revenue came from other agencies, while admitting it was unable to nail down outlays for several outside spending categories, such as legal judgments and retiree healthcare.

This may explain why city officials rarely seem to be on the same page when discussing corrections costs. For instance, in 2013 the city’s publicly-funded Independent Budget Office reported total outlays per inmate of $167,731 that year. But the following year, the city comptroller’s report gave a substantially lower figure, under $100,000, per inmate. Although even the lower figure is nearly three times what the Vera report calculates as the national average, it’s far below the Vera report’s per-inmate cost estimate of $208,000 for New York City – because the comptroller myopically only included the corrections agency’s budget.

Looking at the overall numbers, the new Vera Institute report calculates that in 2014, with an city population of 8.4 million and an average daily jail population of about 11,400, New York City taxpayers spent a whopping $2.378 billion for its jails, less than half of that total ($1.103 billion) coming from the corrections budget, compared with $1.275 billion from other sources.
Perhaps it would be wise to keep these much higher numbers in mind when analyzing the costs and benefits of decriminalization and diversion programs, or in judging what value current sentencing and incarceration policies are delivering.

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