Squeezed by pandemic costs, local governments may want to turn their financial attention to an unexpectedly expensive area: jails. As of 2017, local jails and other related correctional costs had risen to $30 billion, absorbing 2 in 5 of state and local correctional institution dollars and accounting for 6 percent of all county dollars.
In a report released last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed local jail costs, primarily between 2007 and 2017. By taking expenditure data gathered from various federal agencies, they found that local jails had grown extremely expensive. Finding ways to reduce this spending could be one way to dampen COVID-induced budget cuts and furloughs.
Over the last several decades, local governments have greatly increased correctional spending. In 1977, localities spent just $5 billion on both jails and other corrections, whereas they spent six times that amount four decades later. In 2017, local governments spent $25 billion on jails alone. In fact, jail costs now account for large swaths of correctional funding.
Jail costs constituted more than one-third of all nonfederal correctional institution spending in 2017, with the rest going to state facilities, such as prisons, which usually house people with sentences of at least a year. By contrast, the average number of days spent in a local jail in 2017 was 26. At the county level, jails tied for the fifth greatest share of county spending, outpacing fire protection, housing and community development. Jail expenditures also amounted to one-third of all county public safety dollars, even though 20 percent of counties do not operate their own jail.
Locking up people in jail has become expensive. The average cost of a year in jail was $33,922 per person in 2017 and 20 percent of jails were operating over capacity. Overcrowded jails also put a strain on facilities and building infrastructure, adding more costs. Research has found that jail infrastructure can degrade significantly after 30 or 40 years of use and, according to data from 2009, the estimated cost for new jail construction is $100,000 per bed. Theoretically, lowering jail populations should cut jail costs substantially by shrinking the need for new jail beds and allowing old buildings to be retired instead of undergoing an expensive renovation; but, in actuality, reducing jail spending seems to be much more convoluted.
Spending on jails seems to be proportionate neither to the number of people in jails nor crime rates. The data shows that, even when crime rates, jail admissions and jail populations decrease, the amount of money put toward jail spending continues to increase.
Between 2007 and 2017, jail spending increased by 13 percent even though there were 2 million fewer crimes, 2.5 million fewer jail admissions and the average daily jail population decreased by 27,500 people in 2017. Further, the data shows that localities with populations of less than 50,000 people were usually spending the second-highest amount per resident on jails, despite having a crime rate that was a third lower than the jurisdictions with more than a million residents.
The trend shows local jail spending continues to grow every year. However, with COVID-19, localities can no longer afford these increases. Jails may be the most lucrative area to begin budget cuts. Jail expenditures consume large amounts of local jurisdictions’ annual budgets and with many looking to shrink spending to offset COVID-induced budget deficits, reducing jail budgets could provide counties with significant budget relief.