How much does imprisonment cost a state’s taxpayers? The question is conventionally answered simply by looking at the budget of the state’s department of corrections. In some states, however, a substantial share of the imprisonment-related expenses are borne by other state agencies or otherwise do not appear in the corrections department’s budget. In order to provide a more complete accounting of the costs of imprisonment, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice recently collected and analyzed data from forty states (including Wisconsin). Their findings were published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 68 (2012).
The Vera researchers identified eleven categories of costs that are not included in corrections budgets. The most important of these, amounting to almost $2 billion in costs nationally in 2010, took the form of gaps in the funding of health benefits for retired corrections employees. In some states, this and other off-the-budget costs added up to a large share of total prison costs. For instance, in both Connecticut and Illinois, about one-third of the total prison cost was outside the corrections budget. When hidden expenses are so high, the public may have a hard time evaluating the true cost-effectiveness of state sentencing and corrections policies.
Wisconsin’s hidden costs, at 8.5 percent of the total, were somewhat below the average among the forty states studied. (more…)