A recent news release announced an inmate in Soledad prison was convicted of possessing heroin. He was already serving 45 years-to-life for second-degree murder at the time the drugs were discovered in his cell. He had previously been convicted of three other serious offenses – two separate counts of assault with a firearm and one count of shooting into an occupied vehicle and he now faces an added consecutive sentence of 25 years-to-life. Personally, I doubt if this added sentence will get his attention, but it got mine. The inmate is only 39, if he lives another 20 years in prison it will cost the public more than $1 million, plus some unknown inflation factor likely to exceed the consumer price index, to keep him incarcerated, but in this case he is a violent criminal who is exactly where he needs to be. Still, it is an expensive proposition – preventing crime is potentially much cheaper than punishing it.
The cost of crime is an enormous drain on California’s public treasuries. San Benito County’s direct and apportioned cost share for police protection, criminal justice, corrections, and related items totals at least $37 million a year. That is the equivalent of $650 for every county resident or about $2,000 per family. The criminals are, literally, robbing us blind. More importantly, but much harder to measure, are the societal impacts of violence that inflicts pain and suffering on victims – 170,000 of them in 2011. That same year there were also nearly one million victims of property crimes.
Violent crime is the primary focus of California’s justice system; about 43 percent of violent crimes were cleared, but only 14 percent of property crimes are cleared. You cannot put a dollar value on the lost productivity, health consequences, and pain and suffering associated with violent crime.
The total figure does not even include other tangible costs – the average motor vehicle theft incident costs the victim $6,100, while victims of arson average $11,500 in losses according to a state study. California’s violent crime rate remains slightly higher than average for populous states. Overall crime rates have fallen, but not the inflation-adjusted costs.
Where does the money go? Only a portion of local policing expenses are directly related to crime, but I included all of them because there were many other crime related expenses I could not capture such as the costs of social services, highway patrol crime operations, state investigative services, Federal courts, etc.
There are two large statewide expenses, the correction system (mostly prisons) and the criminal court system. The county's pro rata share of the $9 billion state correction system – more than $51,000 per inmate per year – is $13.5 million. Our share of the state’s $1.5 billion criminal court system is $2.2 million, for a total of $15.7 million in basic state-level expense.
The three largest local expenses are the City Police ($4.9 million), Sheriff’s Operations ($4.8 million), and the County Jail ($4.7 million). Next are Probation ($2.3 million), Juvenile Hall ($1.6 million), the District Attorney ($1.2 million), and the Public Defender ($1 million). Add in the smaller costs such as gang prevention, grant efforts, etc., and the local total – with some state and federal funding – is $21.3 million. About 80 percent of the local expenses ($17.4 million) come out of the county and city general funds; but the taxpayers eventually pay for all of it. The grand total for San Benito residents is $37 million a year.
Alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and gang membership are among society’s most serious issues and all are closely associated with crime. Effective programs that prevent and/or treat these problems pay for themselves many times over. Some of the cost of crime is never going away, but it is obvious that deterring and preventing crimes is much cheaper – and better for society – than investigating, apprehending, judging, and punishing criminals after the fact and after all the damage is done.