A primary driver of this bloated budget lies with the use of prison as a drug treatment program. The federal government spends between $21,000 and $33,000 on each prisoner per year, and about half of federal prisoners are behind bars for drug offenses. Clearly, actual treatment instead of prison for anyone with drug addiction problems is far more effective, from a public safety, cost, and human perspective. It’s more effective because the cost of incarceration per prisoner does not include the loss of productivity to the economy, the damage to the quality and quantity of the labor force, the loss of tax revenue, the missed opportunity for government funds to be spent elsewhere, and the large societal effects of deleting many people from their community.
The report also confirms what most criminal justice advocates already know: Sending people back to prison for technical violations of supervision conditions is another driver of the growing population. At least 15 percent of annual federal prison admissions are for violations of release conditions — anything as minor as forgetting to update a mailing address to committing a new crime. When probation supervision costs an annual average of only $3,433, the most effective and efficient remedy for minor violations is not re-incarceration, but other types of sanctions like more intense supervision or perhaps education and training programs to help ensure a prisoner’s successful reentry.
One fix to the problem of massive spending on ineffective policies is to enact performance incentive funding for all criminal justice spending — at the federal level and in states. Tying funding to a set of meaningful metrics will help ensure that government funds are used on programs and policies that get results. For example, if funding for probation programs was conditioned on how many prisoners are successfully reintegrated into society and do not return to prison — fulfilling a public safety, economic, and societal good — probation officers would not be so quick to send those who violate supervision conditions back to prison. Several states have implemented performance incentive funding for some part of their criminal justice system, but none of have done so on a system-wide basis.
Governments should never spend money on programs that do not achieve their intended goal. Especially at a time when every penny counts, policy makers should think about the wisdom of instituting efficient spending of criminal justice funds across the board. Such policies that improve the rationality, efficiency, and effectiveness of the criminal justice system ought to be the norm. This would be a win for public safety, affected populations, and the country.
Inimai Chettiar is the Director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program at NYU Law School.