One in every 31 adults, or 7.3 million Americans, is in prison, on parole or probation, at a cost to the states of $47 billion in 2008, according to a new study.
Correction spending is outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance, based on state and federal data.
Only Medicaid spending grew faster than state corrections spending, which quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the report today by the Pew Center on the States, the first breakdown of spending in confinement and supervision in the past seven years.
The increases in the number of people in some form of correctional control occurred even as crime rates sharply declined, by about 25 percent in the past two decades.
At a time when states are facing huge budget shortfalls, prisons, which hold 1.5 million adults and cost far more per convict than community supervision, are driving the cost increases.
Yet states have shown a preference for prison spending even though it is cheaper to monitor convicts in community programs, including probation and parole, which require offenders to check in regularly with law enforcement officers.
Over all, two-thirds of offenders, or about 5.1 million people in 2008 were on probation or parole.
Pew researchers say that as states trim essential services like education and health care, prison budgets continue to grow. Those priorities are misguided, the study says.
"States are looking to make cuts that will have long-term harmful effects," said Sue Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. "Corrections is one area they can cut and still have good or better outcomes than what they are doing now."
The study found that states are failing to increase spending for community supervision in proportion to their growing caseloads. About $9 out of $10 spent on corrections goes to prison financing. A person in community supervision costs far less: a survey of 34 states found that states spent an average of $29,000 a year on prisoners compared to $1,250 on probationers and $2,750 on parolees.
One in 11 African-Americans are under correctional control, one in 27 Latinos, and one in 45 white people are in prison, jail, or under correctional supervision.
Only one out of 89 women is behind bars or monitored, compared to one out of 18 men.
States with the highest proportion of people under some form of punishment regimen include Georgia (1 in 13), Indiana (1 in 26), Louisiana (1 in 26), and Ohio (1 in 25).