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Cost Of Justice In The American Criminal System Criminology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1226 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This paper examines defines the concept of justice in the context of the American criminal justice system. It also evaluates the costs associated with criminal justice and the benefits that citizens experience as a result of state expenditures for the justice system by performing a literature on studies that have performed cost-benefit analysis on particular aspects of criminal justice. The paper showed that the cost of crime is escalating in the United States and some criminal justice policies were proven to be cost-effective while others have not.


Justice is one of the dearly-held tenets of democracy. Philosophically, justice has been associated with moral right, on the grounds of rationality, law, religious, fairness, ethics, and equity (Morrison, 1995). Another popular definition of justice is “giving to each what he or she is due” (Morrison, 1995, p. 306). In this day and age, knowing what is “due” has been left to the divisions of criminal justice – law enforcement, corrections, and the judiciary – to decide. Ensuring that justice is served does not come without a price. The federal government shoulders several tangible and intangible costs of meeting the objectives of criminal justice, “restraining known, convicted, violent, and repeat criminals” (The New Citizenship Project, 1996, p. i). This paper seeks to address how much justice costs in America in terms of the expenditures of the criminal justice system and analyzes the benefits of investment on justice.

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A cost-benefit analysis of criminal justice calculates tangible and intangible or social costs as well as social benefits of prisons. Social costs refer to “burdens on society in addition to the resources it takes to run a prison system” (Piehl, Bert, & DiIulio, 1999). Aside from operational expenses of building prisons and running them, the costs of justice should also include variables such as “lost labor-market productivity of inmates, the loss to families of having a member away from home, and the loss to communities of having a resident removed” (Piehl, Bert, & DiIulio, 1999). Benefits include a) incapacitation of offenders; and b) crime deterrence or prevention.

Costs of Crime

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were approximately 7.3 million individuals incarcerated, on probation, or on parole in the federal corrections system all throughout the United States. This means that out of every 31 U.S. adults, 1 of them is committed to the prison system (Office of Justice Programs, 2010).

For the year 2006, operating the three divisions of criminal justice – law enforcement, corrections, and the judiciary – incurred a total cost of $214 billion (Office of Justice Programs, 2010). Expenditures have steadily risen since 1986 and for year 2006 alone, the increase was 5.1 percent compared to the previous year.

In terms of social costs, a report from the National Institute of Justice (as cited in Piehl, Bert, & DiIulio, 1999) presents an outlook on the cost of crime with respect to victimization. The figures presented in Table 1 are based on average compensations awarded by the jury to victims of particular crimes. Rape entails the highest compesation at $98,325 in every victim while drug sales entails compensation of $5.

Table 1. Estimates of Social Costs of Crime


Social Cost (USD)




10, 624



Motoe vehicle theft




Fraud, forgery, petty thefy


Drug Sale


A more comprehensive study by Moreover, Cohen, Miller, and Rossman in 1994 (as cited in Cohen, 2000) tried to measure the costs of the criminal justice system by comparing costs of crime calculted in several studies. They approximate the cost of justice on a per-crime basis as of year 1987 to be: $5,925 (murder), $2,050 (rape), $1,125 (robbery), and $1,225 (aggravated assault).

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Another study conducted by Miller, Cohen, and Wiersema in 1996 (as cited in Cohen, 2000) calculated the tangible costs of crime that were derived from surveys of victims. The study showed that cost estimations of private researchers are comparatively higher than the estimates calculated by government agencies. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), the average cost of a rape is $234. Miller, Cohen, and Wiersema estimated the tangible cost for rape per victim at $5,100 broken down into $2,200 for lost productivity plus $2,200 for mental health care.

Cost-benefit analysis of crime prevention

After estimating the costs of crime, a cost-benefit analysis proceeds by comparing cost with the benefits of criminal justice programs measured primarily in terms of the crime prevented. There have been a few studies that performed a cost-benefit analysis of several criminal justice programs.

One study was made by Greenwood and his colleagues (1994) to assess what incarceration policies related to the three-strikes rule debate in California would be the most cost-effective. The study calculated that the “cost per serious crime prevented” amounted to $11,800 for the third violent offense committed and $16,300 for the third felony offense committed. The study concluded through the figures that focusing on the most violent offenders gives the most justice (in terms of cost per crime prevented) out of the taxpayers’ money.

Another criminal justice policy that has been studied for cost-effectiveness is the practice of incarcerating drug offenders, whose population take up most of the space in the prison systems all over the U.S. It has been contended that the state spends too much on the prison beds, facilities, and expenditures for incarcerated drug offenders when the return in terms of compensation is only $5 per drug sale (Piehl, Bert, & DiIulio, 1999). In the study conducted by Piehl, Bert, & DiIulio (1999), they concluded that the policy of admitting so many drug offenders into U.S. jails is not a cost-effective means of crime prevention. The fact is, the imprisonment of a drug dealer or seller does not deter crime. That jailed seller is simply replaced by another drug seller. Ultimately, the costs shouldered by the state to incarcerate drug dealers compared to the degree of crime prevented suggests that it is not cost-effective. Experts suggest that prison beds occupied by drug offenders instead be reserved to violent and high-cost property crime offenders.


Studies have shown that crimes indeed pay. The cost of justice, as this paper has stated, is increasing in the U.S. Crime prevention entails gigantic expenses shouldered by the state through taxpayers’ money. Studies that have conducted cost-benefit analysis show that some criminal justice programs are cost-effective while others are not. Until now, obtaining empirical evidence to measure the cost-effectiveness of the justice system has been difficult, but the fact that such efforts are being are crucial to the development of criminal justice programs that will enhance the delivery of justice in the country.


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