Police and Corrections Expenditures

State and Local Backgrounders Homepage

Police and corrections includes spending on police, sheriffs, and other governmental departments that preserve law and order, as well as the operation, maintenance and construction of correctional facilities such as prisons and jails.1

How much do state and local governments spend on police and corrections?

In 2016, state and local governments spent $109 billion on police (4 percent of state and local direct expenditures) and $78 billion on corrections (3 percent), for a combined $187 billion (6 percent).2 Police and corrections were the fifth-largest source of direct general spending at the state and local level in 2016, and they have been the fifth or six largest source since 1977.  

Nearly all (97 percent) of police and corrections spending went toward operational costs in 2016, including law enforcement salaries and benefits; prison inmate health care; and administration of probation departments, boards of parole, and state departments of corrections. The remaining 3 percent were capital outlays, including prison construction. Capital outlays for police and corrections were down from about 10 percent in 1990.

How does state spending differ from local spending?

Overall, police and corrections were 5 percent of state direct general spending  and 8 percent of local direct general spending. Most direct spending on corrections is done by state governments (63 percent), while most spending on police is done by local governments (86 percent). States mostly spend on state-operated prison facilities and highway patrol, while local government mostly pay for assets such as local sheriffs’ offices, police departments, and county jails.

 

How have police and corrections expenditures changed over time?

In 1977, state and local governments spent $59 billion on police and corrections (in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars). In 2016, they spent $187 billion. In 1977, 5 percent of state and local spending went to police and corrections compared with 6 percent in 2016.

How and why does spending differ across states?

Across the US, state and local governments spent $241 per capita on corrections and $338 per capita on police protection, for a combined total of $579 per capita. The District of Columbia spent the most per capita on police and corrections at $1,079,3 followed by Alaska ($956), California ($841), New York ($829), and Wyoming ($780).  Kentucky and Indiana spent the least per person (both $364), followed by Utah ($388), Iowa ($391), and South Carolina ($393).

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

Note: Only police spending is detailed on the data page. For corrections spending, please use our Data Query System

Per capita spending is an incomplete metric because it doesn’t provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, or administrative procedures.
States with high per capita spending on police also tend to have high levels of spending per employee, reflecting the labor-intensive nature of police work. One potential source of variation, crime rates, is not obviously tied with higher levels of police spending.

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, often police and corrections employees are 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 prisoners, probation population, and parolees by employing fewer staff per inmate, probationer, and parolee and by spending less per employee on payroll costs.4

Interactive Data Tools

Prison Population Forecaster

Reducing mass incarceration requires far-reaching reforms

What everyone should know about their state’s budget

Further Reading

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, and G05. 

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, 1977–2016, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, January 9, 2019, http://slfdqs.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.