July-August, 2015

Report Examines the Actual Costs of Local Jails

A report published in May 2015, by the Vera Institute of Justice examined survey results received from 35 jail-jurisdictions in 18 states across the country [Michigan jails are not included in the results] relating to jail expenses, including the actual price tag for operating a jail and the true cost of jail incarceration.  The authors noted that while the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that in 2011 local communities expended $22.2 billion on jails, that sum was actually an underestimate, because for most jail-systems additional governmental agencies bear part of the costs of operating a jail.  The costs borne by other agencies varied from 1% to 53%.  For example, in 2014 the New York City corrections department spent $1.1 billion; however, other city agencies contributed an additional $1.3 billion to employee benefits, health care, and programs for the inmates, for a total cost of $2.4 billion.

The survey and report focused upon jail institutions, and not upon prison institutions.  Jails are those places where the inmates are typically held short-term, i.e. for less than one year, and are operated by county governments or elected sheriffs.  Prisons are those institutions usually run by states or the federal government and generally holding people sentenced to terms of over one year.  Using 2006 data, the authors reported there were 2,917 jail-jurisdictions in the U.S., excluding the combined jail-prison systems used in six states [Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont].  The authors divided the 2,917 jail-jurisdictions into small [less than 200 inmates], medium [200 to 999 inmates], and large [1,000+ inmates] categories for purposes of the study.  The largest 159 institutions, which represent only 5% of U.S. jails, held 47.9% of the jailed population in the country; the 608 medium jails held 34.8% of the total jail population.  The 2,917 jails held 760,739 inmates.  The 35 jail-institutions responding to the survey reflected a total inmate average daily population of 64,920 people, ranging from a daily average population of 17 people in one county in Colorado, to 11,408 people in New York City.

Jails are largely funded by a county’s general fund; 32 of the 35 responding jail-institutions reported that the general funds paid greater than 85% of the jail costs.  Some jails also receive revenue through boarding agreements with other jurisdictions, and – averaging 3% of revenue -- from inmates for such things as phone services and commissary sales.  Additionally, although less common, income is generated through charges to the inmates for drug testing, booking, laundry and other required services.

The authors found that the “only way to have a real impact on personnel costs is by reducing the size of the jail population.”  In one example, the authors compared generally similar-sized counties:  Johnson County in Kansas and Bernalillo County in New Mexico.  They found that although it was more expensive to house an inmate in Johnson County than it was in Bernalillo County [$191.95 per day/$85.63 per day], and the average salary in Johnson County was $94,000, in contrast to the average salary of $54,000 in Bernalillo County, because fewer people on average were incarcerated in Johnson County [693] than in Bernalillo County [2,496], taxpayers in Johnson County paid significantly less annually than did those in Bernalillo County [$82.00 per resident/$113.00 per resident].

The authors concluded that the only way local communities can reduce jail costs is by limiting the number of those incarcerated.  However, “the power to downsize the jail is largely in the hands of stakeholders outside” the jail walls, so, only by “looking beyond the jail to the decisions made by police, prosecutors, judges and community corrections officials – will jurisdictions be able to significantly reduce the size of their jails, save scarce county and municipal resources, and make the necessary community reinvestments to address the health and social service needs that have for too long landed at the doorstep of the jail.”

Source:  Christian Henrichson, Joshua Rinaldi and Ruth Delaney, “The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration,” Vera Institute of Justice, Center on Sentencing and Corrections, May, 2015: http://www.vera.org/pubs/price-of-jails

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor