Police and Corrections Expenditures

State and Local Backgrounders Homepage

This category 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 2015, state and local governments spent $181 billion, or 6 percent of direct general spending, on police and corrections.2 Police and corrections were the fifth-largest source of direct general spending at the state and local level in 2015, and they have been since 1996. Between 1977 and 1996, police and corrections were the sixth-largest source of state and local spending.

Nearly all (96 percent) of police and corrections spending goes toward operational costs, 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 4 percent are capital outlays, including prison construction; that share is down from about 10 percent in 1990.

How does state spending differ from local spending?

Overall, spending on police totaled $105 billion (or 4 percent of state and local direct general spending) versus $77 billion for corrections (3 percent).  State governments dedicate less of their budgets to police and corrections than localities. In 2015, 6 percent of local direct general spending went to police and corrections versus 1 percent of state direct general spending.Most spending on police came from local governments (86 percent), while state governments provided the lion’s share of corrections spending (64 percent).  State spending, for the most part, goes toward state-operated prison facilities or highway patrol, while local government spending goes toward assets such as local sheriffs’ offices, police departments, and county jails.

Sixty-five percent of total state and local direct general spending on police and corrections occurs at the local level. Only Alaska, Delaware, Massachusetts, Vermont, and West Virginia had more than 50 percent of total police and corrections occur at the state level.  Vermont had the lowest level of local police and corrections spending at 30 percent; Nevada had the highest with 80 percent.

How have police and corrections expenditures changed over time?

In 1977, state and local governments spent $58 billion on police and corrections (in 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars). In 2015, they spent $181 billion, or almost three times that amount.
Between 1977 and 2015, other state spending grew slightly slower than did police and corrections spending. In 1977, 5 percent of state and local spending went to police and corrections compared with 6 percent in 2015.

How and why does spending differ across states?

Across the US, state and local governments spent $239 per capita on corrections and $328 per capita on police protection, for a total of $567 per capita. The District of Columbia spends the most per capita on police and corrections, at $1,084 per capita,3 followed by Alaska ($963), California ($818), New York ($800), and Wyoming ($755).  Kentucky spends the least per capita ($329), followed by Indiana ($336), Maine ($351), and Iowa ($382).

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

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)

A new tool to get under the hood of state and local budget choices
Tracy Gordon, TaxVox (2017)

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)

Prepping for the 2018 Legislative Session
Richard Auxier and Erin Huffer (2017)

Prepping for the New Session: End-of-Summer Reading for State Budget Analysts
Norton Francis, Sarah Gault, and Yifan Zhang (2016)

Prepping for the New Session: End-of-Summer Reading for State Budget Analysts
Norton Francis, Tracy Gordon, and Megan Randall (2015)

Governing with Tight Budgets: Long-Term Trends in State Finances
Norton Francis and Frank Sammartino (2015)

State Budgets in the Trump Era
Kim Rueben and Richard Auxier (2017)


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, 1977–2015, accessed via the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center Data Query System, October 12, 2017, 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.