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The decrease in the national crime rate in the US during the past two decades was insufficient to offset the cost to US taxpayers to manage prisons because of the simultaneous increase in the rate of incarceration during the period. Between 1991 and 2013, the national crime rate fell from 1,311 to 689 offenses per 100,000 people. In absolute terms, 8.5 million fewer crimes were committed in 2013 compared to 1991. While the crime rate decreased, the number of state inmates grew by 200 percent nationwide, reaching a total incarcerated population of 1.6 million in 2008. Another 723,131 inmates were confined in local jails for a total adult inmate population of 2.3 million, or roughly 1 in 100 adults in the United States.

These trends in US criminal justice have come at a cost to American taxpayers. State corrections budgets have nearly quadrupled in the past two decades. Despite this alarming figure, official correction budgets account for only a portion of the financial obligations a state incurs when it sentences an individual to prison. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that the total taxpayer cost of prisons, including additional indirect costs that fall outside correction budgets, was $39 billion in 2010. This is $5.4 billion more than official $33.5 billion total spending of state correction departments. These indirect costs vary widely, according to the Vera Institute, from 1 percent of the total cost of prisons in Arizona to 34 percent in Connecticut.

The relative modern day cost of incarceration in the US relative to public expenditures on elementary-secondary education strongly supports social policy planning that puts education first. Assuming that the total number of people imprisoned in the United States was 1.2 million in 2010, the average per-inmate cost was $31,286 and ranged from $14,603 in Kentucky to $60,076 in New York. In contrast, the US government spent $602 billion on the nearly 50 million elementary-secondary students in public schools in the US in 2010, or about $12,800 per student, according to the US Census Bureau. This is more than two times less than was spent on average per inmate.