Jail Costs Rise 13% Despite Decrease in Populations: Report

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Los Angeles County Jail. Photo by Rev. Dr. Disney Wizard via Flickr

Despite a nearly 30 percent decline in jail populations over the past decade, the cost of operating more than 3,000 jails nationwide has increased by 13 percent, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

Personnel costs, which account for 73 percent of jail budgets, are one of the key factors driving the increase, according to a nationwide survey and analysis conducted by Vera researchers.

The report, entitled What Jails Cost, examined publicly available figures from county jails in 48 cities with the assistance of volunteers from BNY Mellon and Goldman Sachs, in addition to information from Bureau of Justice Statistics Annual Survey of Jails. 

Researchers concluded that in the 48 cities studied, if local governments “rightsized their jail budgets” and staff size to account for the reduction in individuals incarcerated, they could save $2.2 billion a year — “and even more, as jail populations decline further.”

The Vera researchers write that the savings could be reallocated to other government programs to better serve the community.

“A jail is one of a community’s largest financial drains, and its funding is drawn from the same sources that support hospitals, schools, social services, roads, and many other essential functions of local government,” the report said.

“All of these services are even more important as our nation recovers from COVID-19.”

Over 630,000 individuals were locked up in the nation’s jails, according to 2020 figures published by the Prison Policy Initiative. The majority of them–about 470,000–were not convicted of any crime but were awaiting trial or a court appearance because they could not afford bail.

But the figures have been dropping dramatically, partly as a result of changes in sentencing policies that divert more people charged with nonviolent offenses or misdemeanors to alternative forms of punishment.

The pandemic has also driven a decrease in jail populations, as authorities opt to keep justice-involved individuals away from facilities that are considered susceptible to the spread of infection.

In some cities, the decline has far outpaced the average. The Albuquerque jail population dropped 52 percent over the decade; Minneapolis dropped 55 percent; and Philadelphia by 45 percent.

 Nevertheless, the costs of running local jails remain :”staggering,” Vera said in releasing a detailed breakdown of jail budgets in each city.

The estimated annual spending on jail comes to $25 billion, according to the researchers.

‘Budget Justice’: Looking at the Numbers

The tables included in the report contain key metrics on jail spending, as well as incarceration rates, and the rate of change from 2011 until present date, that allow members of the public to drill down on the cost of facilities in their area.

Notably, New York City emerged as the country’s top spender in terms of jail budget spending.

Despite a 58 percent decrease in the overall jail population in New York City since 2011, the jail budget only decreased one percent — resulting in the current FY21 jail budget of $2.3 billion to lock up fewer than 5,500 individuals.

Chicago had the third largest jail budget in the nation, totaling nearly $438 million, representing a 40 percent increase since 2011, despite the overall jail population dropping 44 percent over the same period.

A similar trend has emerged in smaller cities and rural communities.

In Omaha, Nebraska, the jail budget for FY21 is $54.3 million, representing a 55 percent increase in the budget since 2011, despite a 4 percent decrease in the overall jail population for the same time period.

In Wichita, Kansas, the jail budget for FY21 is $33.7 million, a 6 percent increase since 2011, despite a 2 percent decrease in the overall jail population for the same time period.

Overall, these trends hold up in nearly every large city studied across the country. Over the past 10 years, the average total jail spending increased by $1 billion, despite jail populations declining roughly 30 percent.

‘Despite the huge cost of maintaining jails, communities have not been made “safer, healthier, or more resilient,” the researchers wrote.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report

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