A recent report found that jailing an inmate in New York City for one year costs more than four years of tuition at an Ivy League university.
The Independent Budget Office found that in 2012 it cost the city $167,731 to hold each of its daily average of 12,287 inmates, or about $460 per inmate per day.
Undergraduate tuition at Harvard University is $38,891 annually, or $155,564 for a four-year degree.
Of those inmates, more than 2,000 were being held for drug offenses, surpassing the number for murders or robberies.
The majority of inmates are African-American (57 percent), followed by Hispanics (33 percent), whites (7 percent) and Asians (1 percent), a New York City Department of Corrections report said. The majority of inmates come from less affluent areas of the city.
Experts say certain expensive fixed costs in New York's system keep the figure high despite a large drop in incarceration, which peaked in 1991 at about 22,000 inmates. The Department of Corrections has substantial pension and salary responsibilities and significant debt-service payments. It says 86 percent of its operating costs go to wages; it employs 9,000 relatively well-paid unionized correction officers. The department's budget in 2012 was $1.08 billion.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year to run Rikers Island — a 400-acre island near the runways of LaGuardia Airport that has 10 jail facilities, thousands of staff members, its own power plant and a transportation system.
New York's per-inmate costs dwarf other large cities'. Los Angeles spent $128.94 per day, or $47,063 per year, in its 2011-12 fiscal year, LA's sheriff's office said. According to the Cook County Sheriff's Office, in 2010, the most recent year for which figures were available, Chicago spent $145 per inmate per day, or $52,925 for the year.
In August the Obama administration announced steps to fix what it called unjust treatment of nonviolent drug offenders. It aimed to bypass mandatory prison terms while reducing the country's huge prison population and saving jurisdictions billions of dollars.
"Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law-enforcement reason," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech unveiling the proposals.
The United States leads the world in the number of people behind bars, according to the International Center for Prison Studies in London.
The so-called war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing and related laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to a rising number of inmates, especially those charged with drug-related offenses.
Holder added in his August speech that one of the changes he would implement is ensuring that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs or cartels are not given "draconian mandatory minimum sentences."
Among such measures is California's three-strikes law, enacted in 1994, which mandates a state prison term of 25 years to life for any person convicted of a felony who has two or more previous convictions. This contributed to a mushrooming prison population in the state.
In 2011 the Supreme Court ordered California — which has the largest prison population of any U.S. state — to release tens of thousands of inmates or take other steps to ease prison overcrowding to prevent "needless suffering and death."
California Governor Jerry Brown, instead of repealing the three-strikes law, proposed a $315 million plan in August to expand inmate capacity by sending the overflow to private prisons.
Over the past 30 years, there has been a 500 percent increase in U.S. incarceration rates, which has led to prison overcrowding and overwhelming financial burdens for states.
According to prisoner-advocacy group the Sentencing Project, people incarcerated on drug charges comprise half the population at the federal level.
And in state prisons, the number of drug offenders has increased 13-fold since 1980. Most of them are not high-level criminals, and most have no record of violent offenses.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press