The economic toll of incarceration in the U.S. exceeds $1 trillion, and more than half of that falls on the families and communities of the people incarcerated, says a recent study by Washington University researchers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. “For every dollar in corrections spending, there’s another 10 dollars of other types of costs to families, children and communities that nobody sees because it doesn’t end up on a state budget,” said Michael McLaughlin, the doctoral student and certified public accountant who led the study. “Incarceration doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” The study’s authors claim to be the first to assign a dollar amount to the societal costs of incarceration, not just the governmental costs of running corrections systems, which is estimated at $80 billion annually. That number “considerably underestimates the true cost of incarceration by ignoring important social costs,” the researchers wrote.
The study was spearheaded by McLaughlin and Carrie Pettus-Davis, co-director of the Smart Decarceration Initiative. Some costs of incarceration include the wages people no longer earn while imprisoned — $70.5 billion — and the amount of lifetime earnings they will likely lose out on — $230 billion — after they get out because of employment restrictions and discrimination against the formerly incarcerated, the study says. The formerly incarcerated have a mortality rate that is 3.5 times higher than people who were not incarcerated, and researchers estimated the cost of their shortened lives to be $62.6 billion. As for the communities where incarcerated people live, the researchers believe the biggest cost — $285.8 billion — is the criminogenic effect of prison, or the theory that prison reinforces.