Skip to main content

By Market Intelligence Team

Prison Spending Outpaces All But Medicaid

Tuesday’s New York Times leads with a story that prison spending is the big winner in the state government budget race. This headline is a testament to two age-old policy follies – the failure to provide parity in treatment benefits for mental health and addictive disorders and the criminalization of addiction. The growth of the prison population – now holding 1.5 million adults – is driving the spending increases. State corrections spending has quadrupled in the past two decades, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States, the first breakdown of spending in confinement and supervision in the past seven years. And, most states continue to keep mentally ill and addicted prisoners incarcerated – even though it is cheaper to monitor convicts in community programs, including probation and parole. The national average is $29,000 a year per prisoner. So what are the stats?

  • In 2005, more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem. (Compared to 11% of adult U.S. population met criteria for mental health disorder.)

    • 56% of state prisoners

    • 64% of local jail inmates

    • 45% of federal prisoners

  • Mental health problems and co-occurring addiction rates are high in the U.S. corrections system:

    • 42% of inmates in state prisons

    • 49% of inmates in local jails

    • 29% of inmates in federal prisons

This is one area where tax dollars are really being spent in the wrong place with little long-term positive outcome. I agree with Sue Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States, when she was quoted saying, “States are looking to make cuts that will have long-term harmful effects… Corrections is one area they can cut and still have good or better outcomes than what they are doing now.” Let’s hope that our economic meltdown, combined with our newly-passed parity legislation, has the effect of moving our financial resources to services that can make a difference – access to treatment to prevent involvement with the corrections system and alternatives to incarceration for those with a mental disorder or addiction problem.


Monica E. Oss

Chief Executive Officer of OPEN MINDS

PS: For more information on prison spending, OPEN MINDS Circle members may wish to access “Nearly 1.6 Million Americans Are in State or Federal Prison; Another 700,000 in Local Jails“.

Interested OPEN MINDS Premium Circle members may also wish to access “Mental Health Courts: A Primer for Policymakers & Practitioners.” This report addresses a series of commonly asked questions about mental health courts, including differences between a mental health court and a drug court.

Not a Premium member? Click here to learn how to upgrade.


Login to access The OPEN MINDS Circle Library. Not a member? Create your free account now!


Support Request

Need help now?

Call our toll-free phone number 877-350-6463