Drivers and Strategies to Lower the Cost of Incarceration

Economic Impacts of the American Prison System

Over the last couple of years, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has been on a steady increase. Can the country afford to continue paying for its massive prison system? This text concerns itself with the economic impact of the U.S. prison system. In so doing, some of the key issues that will be addressed include but they are not limited to the drivers of cost in U.S. prisons as well as the strategies that can be adopted in an attempt to reduce the said costs.

Incarceration in America: A Brief Examination of Costs

According to a report prepared for members and committees of congress by Kirchhoff (2010) approximately two years ago, “the U.S. corrections system has gone through an unprecedented expansion during the last few decades, with more than 400% jump in the prison population and a corresponding boom in prison construction.” As Kirchhoff (2010) further points out, although only 5% of planet earth’s population resides in the U.S., the percentage of prisoners incarcerated in the county’s numerous prisons is approximately 25% that of the entire globe. This translates to more than 2 million prisoners.

A significant chunk of the country’s resources continues to be used up in the maintenance of prison facilities. This is regardless of the fact that in the last two or so decades, crime rates have been on a downward trend. In an attempt to demonstrate how expensive it has become to run prisons, Henrichson and Delaney (2012) point out that for states like New York, the total per-inmate cost has over time risen to approximately $60,076 p.a. This is an undeniably high cost for the incarceration of a single offender. In my view, this is money that could be used for other more productive undertakings including but not limited to infrastructural development. Further, such an amount of money would be enough to settle a teacher’s annual salary. Should this incarceration epidemic go unchecked, taxpayers will continue losing money to state projects that have no significant impact on their well-being and standards of living. The all important question in this case remains: does it make economic sense to keep supporting a bloated prison system? I am convinced that if nothing is done to address this urgent issue, most American states will soon be faced with a rather serious fiscal crisis going forward.

The American Prison System: An Examination of the Relevant Cost Drivers and Strategies to Lower the Cost of Incarceration

The ever increasing population of people incarcerated in our prisons is undeniably one of the main drivers of prison costs. As I have already pointed out elsewhere in this text, our country currently has more than 2 million people behind bars. This as I have also already pointed out translates to about a quarter of the world’s total prison population. With states like New York using tens of thousands of dollars as their per-inmate maintenance costs, any further increase in prisoner numbers could only end up hurting the economy. In my opinion, the first (and perhaps the most critical) step that should be taken in an attempt to bring down the cost of running the country’s prisons has got to do with controlling prison population growth. In the words of Kirchhoff (2010), some of the factors that have fueled the said increase in prison population include but they are not limited to “tough drug enforcement, stringent sentencing laws, and high rates of recidivism — the re-arrest, reconviction, or re-incarceration of an ex-offender.” All these factors on the other hand influence the total number of prison admissions and the period of time those convicted of various offenses and crimes spend behind bars. These latter factors are in the opinion of Henrichson and Delaney (2012) the main determinants of inmate population. Towards that end, any attempt made to address growth in prison population must ideally start with a conclusive examination of these issues.

To begin with, decisive steps should be taken to relax or adjust the stringent sentencing laws currently in place. Indeed, as Henrichson and Delaney (2012) point out, in the last four decades, the U.S. has demonstrated a particular inclination towards the utilization of prisons as a crime control tool. In that regard, a significant number of minor offenders are being locked up, leading to higher prison admissions and hence prison overcrowding. There is no doubt whatsoever that given the gravity of the crimes they commit, some offenders deserve incarceration. It is however important to note that in an attempt to rein in on the escalating prison maintenance costs, the country’s judicial and prison system must and should indeed be more adaptive especially when it comes to non-violent crime. In that regard, sentencing and release policies need to be reviewed. As Henrichson and Delaney (2012) point out, some states have already started undertaking a sentencing overhaul. There exists a need for many more states to review their sentencing and release policies. In this particular case, states could model their approach to that taken by Kentucky. In 2008, Kentucky according to Henrichson and Delaney (2012) “revised sentencing laws for certain nonviolent offenses to better distinguish between serious and lower-level crimes, including eliminating some penalty enhancements for subsequent drug-possession offenses.”

States and indeed the entire justice system may also have to pursue other ways/alternatives of dealing with lesser crimes. For instance, I remain convinced that some drug offenders need not be committed to lengthy prison stints. It is important to note that in some cases, federal and state courts undertake to put individuals found in possession of small amounts of drugs like marijuana through an expensive court and trial process after which they are committed to jail for significantly lengthy terms on being found guilty. This in my opinion does little to decongest our jails and hence bring down the costs of running the same. It is also important to note that in most cases, our justice system largely concerns itself with punishing the said individuals as opposed to helping them live drug free lives. Thus upon their release, small-time drug offenders are more likely than not to be arrested again for similar offenses for which they were arrested in the first place. With that in mind, there exists a need to explore other alternatives to imprisonment for not only small-time drug offenders but also for those arrested for offenses like minor damage to property, etc. Alternatives to imprisonment could include hefty fines, court orders requiring minor offenders to engage in community service or enroll for rehabilitation, etc.

The other approach that could be taken in an attempt to address inmate population in our jails has got to do with bringing down recidivism rates. In basic terms, recidivism in this context is the tendency of offenders to repeat an offense after their release from jail. As I have already pointed out elsewhere in this text, recidivism according to Kirchhoff (2010) is one of the factors that have been blamed for the sustained increase in prison population. It should however be noted that recidivism can be reduced on the application of a number of strategies. Indeed, as Henrichson and Delaney (2012) point out; there are potential savings to be made from reduced recidivism rates. One of the strategies the author identifies as being effective in the reduction of recidivism rates is the establishment of effective reentry programs. Such programs typically concern themselves with the preparation of prisoners for release. After several years behind bars, most individuals would naturally find it difficult to ‘fit-in’ in the society upon their release from prison. In such a case, those released from jail could easily slide back to their former criminal lifestyles. This often leads to their prompt re-arrest. In that regard, the relevance of having in place effective reentry programs cannot be overstated. In the opinion of Henrichson and Delaney (2012), these programs should ideally begin soon after an individual is admitted into prison. As the authors further note, some states have in addition to embracing these programs also gone a step further and established supervision initiatives in which case offenders are assigned to the most appropriate supervision level based on their risk of reoffending. Further, in those instances where offenders are involved in some minor violations of community-based supervision procedures, most states now embrace alternative sanctions that do not necessarily require former prisoners to be jailed again (Henrichson and Delaney, 2012). The authors also note that in a bid to ensure that the prison system is not further overburdened, some states have in the past started offering financial incentives to agencies that seek to bring down recidivism rates.

Privately operated jails cannot go unmentioned in a discussion of this nature. Private prisons in basic terms are correctional facilities whose management is undertaken by a private entity contracted by the relevant government authorities. According to McShane and Williams III (1996), “the major attraction of private prisons is economic.” According to the author, it has been claimed that private prisons can be run less expensively than public correctional facilities. Although there are those who dispute this assertion, McShane and Williams III (1996) point out that findings in this case are largely conflicting and inconclusive. In my opinion, privately run prisons could in the long run end up being less expensive than government prisons. Cost savings in this case could be realized on two main fronts. To begin with, supporters of private prisons point out that such facilities could in addition to applying sophisticated management practices also bring on board a leaner and more productive staff (McShane and Williams III, 1996). Secondly, according to McShane and Williams III (1996), private entities are more likely to “construct facilities faster and less expensively than government agencies can.” This is more so the case given that government agencies have to adhere to complicated and lengthy contractor procurement procedures.

Yet another issue worth looking into as we seek to chart the economic impact of the American prison system has got to do with the death penalty and life imprisonment. In this particular case, it is important to note that studies conducted in the past have clearly indicated that the death penalty is indeed more expensive that life imprisonment. According to Melusky and Pesto (2011), a study conducted in New York found out that the death penalty is approximately three times more expensive than life imprisonment. In other states, the situation is worse. In the words of Melusky and Pesto (2011), “in Florida, each execution costs the state more than $3 million-approximately six times the cost of life imprisonment.” As the authors further point out, approximately $90 million per annum would be saved in California were the state to do away with the death penalty and instead commit inmates to life imprisonment. Expenses in this case arise from the lengthy trials and appeals associated with capital cases. Indeed, some capital cases take over a decade to conclude. Given that death row prisoners have to be kept under intense observation, the costs of running prisons are bound to keep increasing with an increase in the number of death row inmates. Costs in this case could also result from intensive jury selection procedures. Given its expensive nature, some of those opposed to the death penalty have called for its abolition. Replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment could help minimize the escalating costs of maintaining prisons. In my opinion, doing away with the death penalty would make no significant difference in crime rates. This is more so the case given that there have been claims that the death penalty does not in any way deter crime. Quite a number of studies conducted in the past as Vito and Maahs (2011) point out have concluded that the death penalty does not have any significant effect on homicides.

The age of prisoners is also a contributing factor to the increasing cost of running the country’s prisons. As Settersten and Angel (2011) point out, “once incarcerated, those over the age of 60 represent a greater expense than younger prisoners.” Expenses in this case have largely got to do with the cost of taking care of the health of aged prisoners. This is more so the case for those suffering from chronic conditions including but not limited to diabetes and high blood pressure. Prisoners in this case could have developed the said health conditions prior to their incarceration or following their imprisonment (Settersten and Angel, 2011). Complications associated with such health conditions make elderly prisoners the most expensive prisoners to maintain. It is also important to note that those past the age of 60 tend to be particularly vulnerable to a wide range of other opportunistic diseases and infections. According to Kerbs (as cited in Settersten and Angel, 2011), the overall cost of incarceration can be lowered by amongst other things exploring alternative housing arrangements for inmates regarded elderly. Elderly prisoners should be separated from their younger counterparts to avoid a scenario where the latter group intimidates the former (Settersten and Angel, 2011). Intimidation and constant harassment from younger prisoners could be a stress factor for elderly prisoners. In that regard, housing elderly prisoners separately could help retard the development of chronic conditions while at the same time reducing the severity of such conditions.

Prison facilities and correctional facilities should also embrace other cost reduction measures in an attempt to minimize or trim expenses while at the same time boosting efficiency. Such measures in my opinion could include but they are not limited to identifying and recommending the retrenchment of redundant staff, minimization of wastage, etc. It is also important to note that for decades, some states have not reviewed their penalty charges. In my opinion, there exists a need to revise such charges especially given the effects of inflation on the same over time. Failure to adjust the affected charges effectively limits the amount of money raked-in by relevant authorities. Some of the states that have revised their penalty charges according to Henrichson and Delaney (2012) include Washington and California.


In conclusion, it is important to note that if no step is urgently taken to address the problem, the cost of maintaining prisons in the U.S. will end up compromising the development agendas of both federal and state governments. It is no longer prudent to continue prescribing the same remedies to a problem that is becoming worse with time. In that regard, the need to come up with creative ways of cutting the rising prison costs cannot be overstated. This could be done by embracing a wide range of strategies aimed at reducing the number of prison admissions and the amount of time those convicted of various crimes and offenses spend in prison.


Henrichson, C. & Delaney, R. (July 7, 2012). The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from the VERA Institute of Justice website:

Kirchhoff, S.M. (2010, April 13). Economic Impacts of Prison Growth. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from the Foundation of American Scientists website:

McShane, M.D. & Williams III, F.P. (Ed.). (1996). Encyclopedia of American Prisons. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Melusky, J.A. & Pesto, K.A. (2011). Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America: Capital Punishment. California: ABC-CLIO.

Settersten, R.A. & Angel, J.L. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of Sociology of Aging. New York: Springer.

Vito, G. & Maahs, J. (2011). Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy (3rd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

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