Michigan has just over 32,000 prisoners and spent $1.4 billionon them in the latest fiscal year. That’s more than $40,000 per prisoner. This hefty price tag is often compared to school funding, which amounts to “just” $17,000 per student.
While this comparison may make for attention-grabbing soundbites, it has no practical use. How much a state spends on prisons has no relation to what it spends on schools.
Practically speaking, one should expect states to spend more per prisoner than they do per student. Prisoners are cared for 24-7-365, with all housing and food provided. Schools typically provide services for part of the day for just 180 days per year. Schools hire one teacher for about every 20 students, whereas prison guards oversee about five prisoners each on average.
The main reason for this is that the bulk of spending in both prisons and schools is employee costs: salaries, health care benefits, pensions and other benefits. Government workers, whether in schools or prisons, cost more in some states than they do in others, largely driven by bad state policy.
Many states need to get a handle on their costs in order to provide better service for taxpayers. Just don’t expect meaningless comparisons between prison and school spending to provide any guidance on how to achieve that.
Permission to reprint this blog post in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author (or authors) and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy are properly cited.
Get insightful commentary and the most reliable research on Michigan issues sent straight to your inbox.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit research and educational institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for a free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.
Please consider contributing to our work to advance a freer and more prosperous state.