NC Budget and Tax Center

Huge growth in North Carolina’s imprisonment rate and corrections spending

An insightful interactive map created by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows the extraordinary growth in imprisonment rates nationwide. For North Carolina, the number of individuals under state or federal correctional authority nearly tripled from 1978 to 2013, increasing to 356 from 214 individuals per 100,000 residents over this time period. This growth in the state’s imprisonment rate is accompanied by increased state corrections spending – rising from $538 million in 1978 up to $1.7 billion in 2013 when adjusted for inflation.

Growth in the state’s imprisonment population has been costly for North Carolina and nationally. More and more state dollars for state corrections spending has contributed to fewer dollars available for public schools and other public investments that serve as the foundation of economic growth. In 2011, state lawmakers passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which aims to manage the state’s prison population growth by creating better outcomes for offenders and, in turn, reduce recidivism. However, the state’s ongoing revenue crisis resulting from costly tax cuts and continued budget cuts limit opportunities for proven, cost-effective initiatives, such as drug treatment courts.

What is clear is that state corrections operations in North Carolina consume a significant amount of resources, and individuals, at the expense of other important public investments.


  1. James

    December 5, 2014 at 10:38 am

    How is an increase from 214 people per 100,000 in 1978 to 356 people per 100,000 in 2013 “nearly triple”? By my math that’s a 66-percent increase. Triple would be 642 people per 100,000 in 2013.

  2. Rob Schofield

    December 5, 2014 at 1:07 pm

    Look a little closer and you’ll see the tripling reference is to the actual number of people incarcerated which went from around 12,000 to more than 35,000.

  3. Cedric Johnson

    December 5, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    James, as Rob states, the “tripling” refers to the actual number of individuals imprisoned. You can toggle the interactive map and/or download the data above to assess the actual numbers.

  4. Betty McGuire

    December 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Cedric I can help you put NC in perspective. I was there as part of Division of Prisons management from 1985 until I retired in 2006. Yes the cost of prisons increased dramatically in the 1990’s because of the Federal lawsuits about ‘conditions of confinement.’ The inmates won and they deserved to win. The inmates were packed in triple bunks, there were no health care providers on site. Master menu was inadequate. Program/rehabilitation was negligible. Oversight by Correctional Officers was inadequate and dangerous and unsafe. Before the lawsuits began in the early and mid 1980’s funding the Prison system was not a priority of the Legislature or the Governors. Gov. Martin’s administration and the leaders of the Division of Prisons had to deal with it and did a masterful job keeping the Federal Government from taking over the system. That bunch of people are all retired by now. But it cost a lot of money to add staff, construct new prisons, remodel older ones. During that time the Division of Prisons was the only State agency to be funded for what was required leaving the other State agencies to not get as much funding. Look in the archives of the N&O to read about that time period. Just listing the figures in your charts does not tell the whole story. Now prison population is going down what with the Justice Reinvestment Act. There was news about that I read recently. Thanks for allowing me to sound off!!

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