Taxpayers are paying more than ever to jail citizens for one depressingly simple reason

American taxpayers are paying more than ever to support their local jails because citizens are getting arrested at a higher rate than ever before, according to new research by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice.

In a new report titled The Price of Jails: Measuring the Taxpayer Cost of Local Incarceration, Vera explains that jails now hold some 730,000 people in custody on any given day, more than triple their population in 1983. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that local communities spent $US22.2 billion annually on jails.

(It is important to note that by jails Vera is referring to short-term confinement facilities run by county governments or elected sheriffs, which are used to hold people who have not yet been convicted of a crime while their case works its way through the criminal justice system. Prisons, on the other hand, refer to facilites to which a person is sent after they have been convicted and sentenced.)

Vera also notes that new legislation aimed at reducing the size of prison populations has expanded the number of criminal offenses that don’t require incarceration, resulting in more people serving shorter sentences in jail at a greater burden to local taxpayers.

“The fiscal costs of jail are high and, as this report details, actually higher than most realise,” writes Vera Institute President and Director Nicholas Turner in the report. “The jail is one of a community’s largest investments and its funding is drawn from the same sources that support public hospitals, schools, social services, roads, and many other essential functions of local government,”

Vera compiled expenditure information from 35 different jails of various sizes across 18 different states representing roughly 9 per cent of the national jail population to determine how much taxpayers are spending to jail citizens.

The jails surveyed reported that their expenses fit into three categories: employee costs (salaries, fringe benefits, and pension contributions), capital costs (building and facility maintenance), and all other costs, including contracts, supplies, and utilities.

What Vera found is that the largest cost for jails by a wide margin was employee-related. Vera calculated that jails spend 74% of their budget on employee costs. Historically, jails have tried to maintain a ratio of one guard for every three inmates, and that ratio has remained largely unchanged since 1983. However, in 1983 there were 223,551 inmates in jail whereas now there are some 730,000, vastly increasing the cost.

To illustrate how inmate population affects taxpayer cost, Vera compared two counties of comparable size. Johnson County in Kansas has 574,272 residents and Bernalillo County in New Mexico has 675,551 residents. Every inmate admitted to Johnson County jail costs taxpayers $US191.95, whereas Bernalillo County residents pay $US85.63 for every inmate in jail. This is because Johnson County jail employees are paid a significantly larger amount of money than their counterparts in Bernalillo County and enjoy a ratio of nearly one guard for every one inmate.

However, because there are just 693 inmates in Johnson County jail, each resident only has to pay $US82 dollars annually for jail, compared to $US113 per resident for jail in Bernalillo County, where there are 2,496 inmates.

Vera concludes that “the only way localities can safely reduce the costs incurred by jail incarceration is to limit the number of people who enter and stay in jails.” However, they also acknowledge that this is “no small task.”

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