By Carimah Townes
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that local communities spent $22.2 billion to jail suspects and offenders in 2011. A new report from the Vera Institute, however, shows that this figure underestimates the true cost of jails — potentially by massive amounts. According to the report, DOJ excludes expenses that aren’t covered by jail budgets or otherwise marked for this purpose in the state’s bookkeeping. New York City, for example funneled $2.4 billion into local jails in 2014, but the city’s Department of Corrections only covered $1.1 billion of this cost. The remaining $1.3 billion covered expenses such as “jail employee benefits, health care and education programs for incarcerated people, and administration,” but it was not captured by DOJ’s estimate.
According to Vera, which surveyed 35 jail jurisdictions across the country representing every region and facility size, government agencies allocated money to every single one. For the purposes of the report, incurred jail costs were broken down into six categories: employee benefits, inmate health care, capital costs, administrative costs, legal actions, and inmate programming. Eight jurisdictions reported the government pays at least 20 percent of jail costs, whereas 14 jurisdictions said the government pays less than 10 percent. In 32 jurisdictions, 85 percent of total costs were covered by county general funds.
Out of all 35 jurisdictions mentioned in the report, New York City had the largest jail population by far, with 8,405,837 behind bars in 2014. The government covered 54 percent of costs outside of the jail budget last year, shelling out $1,275,676,550. Government money was funneled into every cost category. For instance, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene covered all medical expenses.