NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

As Crime Fell, Justice Costs Rose

February 11, 2002

Between 1982 and 1999, federal expenditures for federal, state and local crime-fighting activities -- including police, prisons and courts -- more than quadrupled, according to a study released yesterday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Every year during the 1990s saw inflation-adjusted gains, even though crime rates were declining during the decade.

The six-fold increase in federal spending highlights the federal government's greatly expanded role in crime fighting -- which previously had been the domain of state and local authorities. Some 60 percent of inmates in federal prisons are there for drug crimes -- a much higher proportion than in state prisons.

  • Over the period, spending to combat crime rose from $36 billion to $147 billion.
  • Nearly 2.2 million people work in the criminal justice system -- including one million police officers, 717,000 prison and jail guards and 455,000 people in the courts.
  • The expenditures amount to 7.7 percent of all state and local government spending -- and are about the same as government spending on hospitals and health care.
  • Federal expenditures on criminal justice jumped to $27.4 billion in 1999 from $$4.5 billion in 1982 -- with the greatest increase being on spending for prisons.

States with high crime rates tend to have higher than average expenditures and employment, while state with the lowest crime rates tend to have the lowest spending and employment.

Source: Fox Butterfield, "Study Finds Steady Increase at All Levels of Government in Cost of Criminal Justice," New York Times, February 11, 2002.


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