Criminal Justice Expenditures: Police, Corrections, and Courts

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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.

Courts 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?

In 2018, state and local governments spent $119 billion on police (4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures), $81 billion on corrections (3 percent), and $49 billion on courts (2 percent).

Nearly all state and local spending on police, corrections, and courts in 2018 went toward operational costs such as salaries and benefits (96 percent for both police and courts and 97 percent for corrections). Capital spending accounted for only 4 percent of both police and courts expenditures and 3 percent of corrections expenditures.

Capital spending has never been a large share of either police or courts expenditures. From 1977 to 2018, the highest annual share of capital spending for police expenditures was 5 percent (multiple years). From 1992 to 2018, the highest share of capital spending for courts 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 expenditures reached a high of 16 percent in 1986 and 1988. However, capital spending's share of corrections spending has not been 10 percent or more 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 spending on police was done by local governments (86 percent) in 2018. Overall, police spending was 1 percent of state direct general expenditures and 6 percent of local direct general 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, 9 percent of township expenditures, and 8 percent of county expenditures.

In contrast, most direct spending on corrections was done by state governments in 2018 (62 percent). Overall, corrections spending was just over 3 percent of state direct general expenditures and a little less than 2 percent of local direct general expenditures in 2018. State spending on corrections included state-operated prisons, while local spending was concentrated on spending for county jails.

Spending on courts was equally delivered by state and local governments in 2018 (50 percent for each level). Overall, courts spending was 2 percent of state direct general expenditures and 1 percent of local direct general 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 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 expenditures.

However, these totals do not include direct federal spending on criminal justice (e.g., federal prisons). For example, the federal government directly spent $29 billion on police, $7 billion on corrections, and $15 billion on courts in 2016.

How have police, corrections, and courts expenditures changed over time?

From 1977 to 2018, in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on police increased from $43 billion to $119 billion, an increase of 175 percent. Over the same period, real corrections expenditures increased from $18 billion to $81 billion, an increase of 350 percent.

From 1977 to 2018, all other spending (that is, total state and local direct general expenditure minus spending on police, corrections, and courts) increased 180 percent. Thus, the spending growth on corrections far outpaced the spending growth for non-criminal justice programs, while the spending growth on police expenditures roughly tracked these non-criminal justice programs.

We do not have access to courts spending back to 1977, but from 1992 to 2018, in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local government spending on courts increased from $29 billion to $49 billion, an increase of 55 percent.

As a share of all state and local direct general expenditures, none of these criminal justice expenditures changed much over the past 40-plus years. However, that consistency is mostly a reflection of how much state and local governments spend on other programs, and particularly elementary and secondary education and public welfare (which includes Medicaid), both of which account for roughly one-fifth of state and local direct general expenditures. From 1977 to 2018, 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 at just under 2 percent from 1992 to 2018.

How and why does spending differ across states and localities?

Across the US, state and local governments spent $364 per capita on police protection in 2018. The District of Columbia3 spent the most per capita on police in 2018 at $895, followed by Alaska ($578), New York ($552), and California ($506). The lowest-spending per capita states in 2018 were Kentucky ($195), Indiana and West Virginia ($223), and Arkansas ($231).

Data: View and download each state's per capita spending by spending category

State and local governments spent $249 per capita on corrections in 2018. Alaska spent the most per capita on corrections in 2018 ($603), followed by California ($393), Wyoming ($364), and the District of Columbia ($360). The lowest-spending states per capita in 2018 were Iowa ($140) and Massachusetts ($143).

Note: For corrections spending, please use our State and Local Finance Data tool.

In 2018, states and local governments spent $150 per capita on courts. Alaska spent the most on courts per capita in 2018 ($418), followed by Wyoming ($242) and the District of Columbia ($231). The lowest spending states in 2018 were Arkansas ($75) and Alabama and South Carolina ($79).

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. Thus, cost of living differences account for some of the variation in per capita spending.

Meanwhile, states with high per capita spending on corrections are a mix of states with high labor costs and large populations of individuals in local or state prisons or under parole or probation, such as Alaska or Delaware. States that spend more per capita tend to have higher costs of living, driving wages up.

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 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 2018, but Clark County, Nevada spent 15 percent. In contrast, police spending was roughly 3 percent of the Cook County, Illinois, budget in 2018 but 19 percent of the Chicago city budget. New York City spent nearly $6 billion on police in 2018 but that was just 6 percent of its budget because New York City public school spending was included in the city's budget—and accounted for a third of the city’s spending.

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).

Interactive Data Tools

Prison Population Forecaster

Reducing mass incarceration requires far-reaching reforms

What everyone should know about their state’s budget

State and Local Finance Data: Exploring the Census of Governments

State Fiscal Briefs

Further Reading

What Police Spending Data Can (and Cannot) Explain amid Calls to Defund the Police
Richard C. Auxier (2020)

Criminal Justice Finance in the COVID-19 Recession and Beyond
Richard C. Auxier, Tracy Gordon, Nancy G La. Vigne, and Kim S. Rueben (2020)

Promoting a New Direction for Youth Justice: Strategies to Fund a Community-Based Continuum of Care and Opportunity
Samantha Harvell, Chloe Warnberg, Leah Sakala, and Constance Hull (2019)

Public Investment in Community-Driven Safety Initiatives
Leah Sakala, Samantha Harvell, and Chelsea Thomson (2018)

Justice Reinvestment: A Toolkit for Local Leaders
Helen Ho, S. Rebecca Neusteter, and Nancy G. La Vigne (2013)

Data Snapshot of Youth Incarceration in Connecticut
Hanna Love, Elizabeth Pelletier, and Samantha Harvell (2017)

Assessing Fiscal Capacities of States: A Representative Revenue System–Representative Expenditure System Approach, Fiscal Year 2012
Tracy Gordon, Richard Auxier, and John Iselin (2016)

Notes

1 Data are from Census functions E62, F62, G62, E04, F04, G04, E05, F05, G05, E25, F25, and G25.

2 Direct general spending refers to all direct spending (or spending excluding transfers to other governments) except spending specially enumerated as utility, liquor store, employee-retirement, or insurance trust. Unless otherwise noted, all data are from the US Bureau of the Census, Survey of State and Local Government Finance, 1977–2017, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, April 5, 2021, https://state-local-finance-data.taxpolicycenter.org. The census recognizes five types of local government in addition to state government: counties, municipalities, townships, special districts (e.g., a water and sewer authority), and school districts. All dates in sections about expenditures reference the fiscal year unless explicitly stated otherwise.

3 The District of Columbia is often an outlier because, although it functions as a state and a locality, it most closely resembles a central city in terms of its population and economic activity, much of which comes from nonresidents. Its ranking among states should be interpreted within this context.

4 For an analysis of components of state and local spending using 2012 data, see the Urban Institute’s interactive tool, What everyone should know about their state’s budget.