PhotoAnnual reports suggest that the U.S. spends around $80 billion every year on correctional facilities and other associated costs. While some consumers may already balk at this large figure, a new study suggests that the actual cost of incarceration is much, much higher.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have found that incarceration costs in the U.S. actually top $1.2 trillion on an annual basis, or nearly 6% of the country’s gross domestic product. The disparity, they say, comes from reports that neglect to include the social costs paid by prisoners’ family and friends, as well as members of the community.

“The $80 billion spent annually on corrections is frequently cited as the cost of incarceration, but this figure considerably underestimates the true cost by ignoring important social costs,” said Carrie Pettus-Davis, an assistant professor at the Brown School and expert on incarceration.

“We find that for every dollar in corrections costs, incarceration generates an additional $10 in social costs. . . More than half of the costs are borne by families, children and community members who have committed no crime.”

Social cost

Pettus-Davis and lead researcher Michael McLaughlin began their study after noting that true estimates for the cost of incarceration were severely lacking. They analyzed a variety of key social factors that added to the cost incarceration, including money paid by prisoners, their families, and members of their communities.

The findings of the study could prove to be very influential; the prison population in the U.S. has grown seven-fold in the last 40 years, so creating new strategies to curb the cost of incarceration could become a key issue if this trend continues.

“This is important because it suggests that the true cost [of incarceration] has been grossly underestimated, perhaps resulting in a level of incarceration beyond that which is socially optimal,” conclude the authors.

The full study can be found here.

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