Nearly 1.5 million Americans were incarcerated in state prisons in 2016. That same year, U.S. states spent about $58 billion to keep these people locked up.
How much each state spends on prisons goes far beyond a simple per prisoner calculation. In fact, there is little to no correlation between the states that spend the most per capita and the states with more prisoners per capita. Instead, variations in state spending boil down to a range of budgetary factors and policy decisions.
Prisons have many expenses related to their main function of confining lawbreakers. In addition to securing the prisoners with infrastructure, technology, and personnel, they have to provide inmates with basic necessities such as food, health care, and even entertainment. On a per capita basis, state prison spending ranges from less than $100 per person to nearly $500 per person. 24/7 Wall st. reviewed the states with the highest and lowest prison spending per person.
According to research conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent nonprofit national research and policy organization, one of the primary drivers of the differences in state prison spending per capita is salaries for prison personnel. The cost of hiring staff, according to the group’s 2015 report “The Price of Prisons,” accounts for 68% of total prison spending.
As a result, states where correctional workers have higher average salaries tend to spend more per capita, and the opposite is true among low spending states. Of the 20 states with the lowest per-capita spending, just four have an average correctional officer annual wage higher than the national average of $43,550.
To identify how much each state spends on corrections, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed state prison spending from the National Association of State Budget Officers, as collected by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice reform. Average annual correctional officer salaries are from the Department of Labor. Incarceration rates and the share of prisoners in private prisons are from The Sentencing Project, and crime rates per 100,000 are from the FBI Unified Crime report. All figures listed are for 2016, with the exception of the private prisoner figure, which is for 2015.