Police and Corrections Expenditures

State and Local Backgrounders Homepage

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.1

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

In 2017, state and local governments spent $115 billion on police (4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures) and $79 billion on corrections (3 percent). 

Nearly all police spending (97 percent) in 2017 went toward operational costs, such as salaries and benefits. Since 1977, capital spending has never accounted for more than 5 percent of police spending.

Corrections spending also went overwhelmingly to operations costs in 2017 (97 percent). However, capital spending, such as prison construction, was greater than 10 percent from 1977 to 1995 and reached a high of 16 percent in 1988.

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 2017. Overall, police spending was 1 percent of state direct general expenditures and 6 percent of local direct general expenditures. 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 accounted for over 13 percent of municipal 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 2017 (62 percent). Overall, correction spending was just over 3 percent of state direct general expenditures and a little less than 2 percent of local direct general expenditures in 2017. State spending on corrections included state-operated prisons, while local spending was concentrated on spending for county jails.

Nearly all spending on both police and corrections was funded by state and local governments because federal grants account for a very small share of both expenditures.

How have police and corrections expenditures changed over time?

From 1977 to 2017, state and local government spending on police increased from $42 billion to $115 billion (in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars). However, as a percentage of direct general expenditures, police spending has remained consistently at just under 4 percent for the past 40 years.

Over the same period, state and local spending on corrections increased from $18 billion to $79 billion (in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars). As a percentage of direct general expenditures, corrections spending increased slightly from 1.6 percent to 2.6 percent.

How and why does spending differ across states?

Across the US, state and local governments spent $354 per capita on police protection in 2017. The District of Columbia3 spent the most per capita on police in 2017 at $910, followed by New York ($529), Alaska ($493), and California ($487). The lowest-spending per capita states in 2017 were Kentucky ($186), West Virginia ($217), Arkansas ($229), and Maine ($232).

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

State and local governments spent $242 per capita on corrections in 2017. Alaska spent the most per capita on corrections in 2017 ($436), followed by California ($371), New Mexico ($345), and New York ($340). The lowest-spending states per capita in 2017 were Iowa and Massachusetts (both $139).

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

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 tied to 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 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

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)

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, 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, 1977–2017, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, February 3, 2020, 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.