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What Does the U.S. Spend on Law Enforcement? JEET Has Answers

August 10, 2023

The U.S. criminal justice system is large and complex, consisting of different branches and sectors designed to facilitate and improve public safety. Central elements that comprise the American justice system include courts, juvenile justice, probation and parole, jails and prisons, prosecutors and defenders, law enforcement, and diversion or specialty treatment programs (i.e., drug court). Adding to the system’s complexity is its fragmented operation and financing structures. Federal, state, and local dollars all contribute.

Public safety policies and practices, which includes policing, impact individual health and well-being, trust in law enforcement, crime, violence and arrest patterns, and other public health areas. The costs to perform public safety and criminal justice functions are significant. The need to understand justice expenditures and justice employment numbers at the state and local levels is perhaps more important than ever as they explore new law enforcement approaches. They range from community policing models and diversion from arrest and incarceration to integrating justice and behavioral health systems to respond to people experiencing a crisis. In addition, with limited budgets in so many jurisdictions, those law enforcement costs invariably affect other services, so understanding those costs can help set priorities better.

Who Collects and What Can We Learn from Justice & Law Enforcement Data?

For more than 40 years, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has quietly published annual justice expenditure data through its Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts (JEE) data collection. It offers a trove of detailed cost data on what the government spends on the criminal justice functions of law enforcement, civil and criminal courts, and incarceration. But the format of the published data was unwieldy to use and analyze, and this has impaired public knowledge and use of the information.

To remedy this problem, BJS awarded Abt a contract to develop a new web-based, data visualization tool that improves access to and use of the JEE data. The Justice Expenditure and Employment Tool (JEET) went live in December 2022 and offers an intuitive way for researchers, policymakers, stakeholders, and the general public to explore annual local, state, and national justice expenditures. Along with data on expenditures, JEET provides data on staffing in the justice field. In 2019, there were 1,019,075 full-time employees performing law enforcement functions. Also available is average pay, which can help determine if people in the justice field receive equitable wages. The tool currently includes data from 2016 to 2019, with plans for Abt to update it with both historical and new data as they become available. Data from the historical JEET files can be brought in to extend the reach of the current JEET tool. 

The image to the left shows state and local police protection spending for the U.S. as a whole and per capita in 2019. In that year, the U.S. spent $123 billion on policing and over 1,000,000 people were full-time employees in the police field. States are shaded from light to dark based on their policing expenditures per capita, with Washington, D.C., having the highest per capita in the nation ($931.17) and Kentucky the lowest ($183.74). An interactive feature displays the state value when it is hovered over.

How JEET Can Help

This information is an underused window into the criminal justice system’s operations and can advance our understanding in multiple ways. It can help policy and planning analysis by providing more detailed budget data on law enforcement, courts, and corrections expenditures across different levels of government and geographies. Combined with other criminal justice indicators and markers of public safety, the JEET tool can help show what taxpayers are getting for their justice dollars. More broadly, the JEET tool can expand our research questions, and more importantly, our ability to accurately answer them.

These questions and answers can make sure we are appropriately funding and organizing today’s public safety system and its components. The tool can help make a large, interconnected, and complex system more understandable and accountable. Beyond that, a better understanding of justice spending will enable states and communities to compare expenditures on behavioral health, education, housing, environment, workforce development and other social determinants that also contribute to safe neighborhoods and healthy people. Governments will be able to make more informed decisions to achieve healthier and more equitable communities, a critical goal--and the core of Abt’s work.

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