Here's How Much It Costs the Feds to Lock Up 219,000 People

And why saving even a little bit of money on jailing criminals could go a long way.

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder is set to announce a batch of reforms aimed at thinning out our overcrowded federal prisons by easing up on drug prosecutions. Among other steps, the Washington Post reports that "low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences." So, in other words, common sense appears to be on the verge of winning a rare victory in the drug war. Good times. 

Better yet, we stand to save a few dollars as a result. Over the last three decades, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent, so that it now contains some 219,000 inmates, about half of whom are there for drug crime. And, as our penitentiaries have gotten fuller, running them has become more expensive. From 2000 to 2012, the federal prison system's budget grew 79 percent, to more than $6.5 billion, as shown in the graph below courtesy of the Urban Institute.  


Now, those dollars are essentially a stray lint ball in the deeper pockets of the federal government, but in the context of the Justice Department, it's real money. The DOJ now spends more than a quarter of its budget on prisons, up from 17 percent at the turn of the century. And as the Urban Institute notes, the department is projected to spend almost 30 percent by 2020. Those funds could be going to other, more productive endeavors, like, well, anything other than locking up essentially harmless criminals for years at a time while leaving big, gaping holes in inner city communities. It would take a fairly drastic reduction in the number of incarcerated drug offenders to shave even a few hundred million off the prison system's yearly budget. But think of it this way: every dollar Holder's reforms save could be another dollar for FBI agents to handle counter terrorism, another dollar for the civil rights division, or another dollar for whatever other priority you think the government's chief law enforcement arm needs to put more muscle behind. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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