How much is your community spending to incarcerate members of your community? Probably a lot more than you think.

A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice takes a stab at tallying up the real total costs of local jails, which take in millions of Americans each year, and which touch the lives of far more people (though for a shorter time) than the state and federal prison systems. American prisons, according to the report, hold 1.4 million inmates; local jails hold another 730,000, and turn over much quicker.

In 2011, the Justice Department estimated the cost of local jails at $22.2 billion. But today’s report seeks to broaden the definition of jail’s costs by including items like benefits paid to jail employees, inmate health care costs, legal claims, and various administrative and capital costs that are left out of the official jail budgets. By the Vera Institute’s reckoning, the true cost of local jails in America is significantly more than the official estimate—in New York City, as an extreme example, they found that more than 50% of the actual cost of jails was not included in the jail budget. And even the official budget has increased by 400% over the past three decades.

“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,” the report notes. Think about that. It is not a secret. It is something we all already know. And it sucks!

We need to put fewer people in jail.

[The full report. Photo: Flickr]

Contact the author at