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Police expenditures include spending on police, sheriffs, state highway patrols, and other governmental departments charged with protecting public safety.
Corrections expenditures are for the operation, maintenance, and construction of prisons and jails, as well as the activities of probation officers and parole boards.
Court expenditures, which the Census defines as "judicial" expenditures, cover government spending on civil and criminal courts plus spending on activities associated with courts such as prosecuting and district attorneys, public defenders, witness fees, law libraries, and register of wills. It does not include probation or crime victim compensation and reparation.1
- How much do state and local governments spend on police, corrections, and courts?
- How does state spending differ from local spending and what does the federal government contribute?
- How have police, corrections, and courts expenditures changed over time?
- How and why does spending differ across states and localities?
How much do state and local governments spend on police, corrections, and courts?
In 2020, state and local governments spent $129 billion on police (4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures), $86 billion on corrections (2.5 percent), and $51 billion on courts (1.5 percent).
Nearly all state and local spending on police, corrections, and courts in 2020 went toward operational costs such as salaries and benefits (96 percent for police, 98 percent for corrections, and 97 percent for courts). Capital spending accounted for 4 percent or less of total spending for each expenditure category in 2020 .
Capital spending has never been a large share of either police or court expenditures. From 1977 to 2020, the highest annual share of capital spending for police expenditures was 5 percent (multiple years). From 1992 to 2019, the highest share of capital spending for court expenditures was 6 percent (1997). (We do not have access to courts expenditure data for years prior to 1992.)
In contrast, capital spending on corrections, such as prison construction, was greater than 10 percent every year from 1977 to 1995. The share of capital spending on corrections reached a high of 16 percent in 1988. However, capital spending's share of corrections spending has not been above 10 percent since 1995, and its share has been below 5 percent every year since 2010.
How does state spending differ from local spending and what does the federal government contribute?
Most direct spending on police was done by local governments (87 percent) in 2020. As a share of direct general expenditures, police spending was 1 percent of state expenditures and 6 percent of local expenditures that year. State expenditures on police mostly included spending on highway patrols, while local funds supported sheriffs' offices and police departments.
Looking at specific types of local government, police spending in 2017 (the most recent year that we have data for these levels of government) accounted for 13 percent of city direct general expenditures, 10 percent of township expenditures, and 8 percent of county expenditures.
In contrast, most direct spending on corrections was done by state governments in 2020 (64 percent). As a share of direct general expenditures, corrections spending was roughly 3 percent of state expenditures and 2 percent of local expenditures in 2020. State spending on corrections included state-operated prisons, while local spending was concentrated on county jails.
Spending on courts was equally delivered by state and local governments in 2020 (50 percent for each level). As a share of direct general expenditures, courts spending was roughly 1 percent of state expenditures and local expenditures. Among local governments, court spending in 2017 as a percentage of general expenditures was the highest at the county level (5 percent of county direct general expenditures).
Nearly all state and local spending on police, corrections, and courts was funded by state and local governments because federal grants account for a very small share of these state and local expenditures.
However, these totals do not include direct federal spending on criminal justice (e.g., federal prisons). The federal government directly spent $30 billion on police, $7 billion on corrections, and $15 billion on courts in 2017 (the most recent year that we have data).
How have police, corrections, and courts expenditures changed over time?
From 1977 to 2020, in 2020 inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on police increased from $45 billion to $129 billion, an increase of 189 percent. Among major programs, the spending growth on police trailed both public welfare and health and hospital expenditures and was roughly equal with spending growth for higher education expenditures. Much of the increase in public welfare spending over this period was driven by federal spending increases on Medicaid.
Over the same period, real corrections expenditures increased from $19 billion to $86 billion, an increase of 363 percent. Spending growth on corrections over this period was higher than all other major programs except for public welfare. However, this in part reflects the relatively low spending totals on this program. In real dollars, corrections spending increased $64 billion from 1977 to 2019, while public welfare increased nearly $644 billion. (For more information on spending growth see our state and local expenditures page.)
We do not have access to court spending back to 1977, but from 1992 to 2020, in inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on courts increased from $30 billion to $51 billion, an increase of 67 percent.
As a share of all state and local direct general expenditures, none of these criminal justice expenditures have changed much over the past 40-plus years. However, that consistency is in part a reflection of how much state and local governments spend on other programs, and particularly on elementary and secondary education and public welfare, both of which account for roughly one-fifth of state and local direct general expenditures. From 1977 to 2020, police spending has consistently accounted for roughly 4 percent of direct state and local general expenditures. Over the same period, corrections spending as a share of state and local spending increased slightly from 1.6 percent to 2.5 percent. Court spending as a percentage of state and local direct general expenditures remained under 2 percent from 1992 to 2020.
How and why does spending differ across states and localities?
Across the US, state and local governments spent $389 per capita on police protection in 2020. The District of Columbia3 spent the most per capita on police in 2020 at $987, followed by California ($564), Alaska ($554), and New York ($550). The lowest-spending per capita states in 2020 were Kentucky ($182), Indiana ($236), Maine ($241), and Arkansas ($245).
Data: View and download each state's per capita spending by spending category
State and local governments spent $260 per capita on corrections in 2020. Alaska spent the most per capita on corrections in 2020 ($475), followed by California ($417), New Mexico ($390), and Wyoming ($383). The lowest-spending states per capita in 2020 were Iowa ($149), Missouri and South Carolina (both $156), and Hawaii and New Hampshire (both $161).
Note: For data on corrections spending, please use our State and Local Finance Data tool.
In 2020, states and local governments spent $153 per capita on courts. Alaska spent the most on courts per capita in 2020 ($339), followed by the District of Columbia ($283), Wyoming ($240), and New York ($236). The lowest spending states in 2020 were Arkansas ($80), South Carolina ($85), and North Carolina ($89).
Per capita spending is an incomplete metric because it does not provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, or administrative procedures.
For example, states with high per capita spending on police tend to have high levels of spending per employee, reflecting the labor-intensive nature of police work. That is, states that spend more per capita tend to have higher costs of living and that drives up wages. Thus, cost of living differences among states account for some of the variation in per capita spending.
States with high per capita spending on corrections are a mix of states with high labor costs and those with large populations of individuals in state or local prisons or under parole or probation.
However, police and corrections employees are often paid above the amount that these labor market conditions might predict. Some states with moderate per capita corrections costs, such as Georgia, compensate for a high number of people in prison, on probation, or on parole by employing fewer staff per inmate, probationer, and parolee, and by spending less per employee on payroll costs.4
There are also significant differences in police spending, as a share of overall spending, across localities simply because different levels of government fund police (and other services) in different states. For example, the city of Las Vegas, Nevada spent less than 2 percent of its budget on the police in 2020, but Clark County, Nevada spent 12 percent of its budget on police. In contrast, police spending accounted for 24 percent of the City of Milwaukee's budget but just 6 percent of the County of Milwaukee's budget. New York City spent nearly $6 billion on police in 2020, but that was only 6 percent of its budget in part because New York City public school spending was included in the city's budget—and accounted for a third of the city’s overall spending in 2020.
The average spending on police for jurisdictions with more than one million people was 9.7 percent in 2017. The average for jurisdictions with fewer than 50,000 people was 16.7 percent. Again, this variation is driven in large part by what particular services jurisdictions deliver (and do not deliver).
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