The Price of Justice: New National and State-Level Estimates of the Judicial and Legal Costs of Crime to Taxpayers


Programs that prevent crime cost money. In order to efficiently allocate these limited funds, we need to know how much people benefit from crime prevention. While there are some comprehensive estimates of the cost of (or benefits of avoiding) crime to victims and to society at large, we have very limited crime-specific information on the legal system resources that would be freed up for other purposes across states. Using a Monte Carlo simulation approach to take into account uncertainty in the data, this study finds the national average costs to taxpayers for judicial/legal services per reported crime are likely around the following (in 2010 dollars): $22,000–$44,000 (homicide), $2000–$5000 (rape and sexual assault), $600–$1300 (robbery), $800–$2100 (aggravated assault), $200–$600 (burglary), $300–$600 (larceny/theft), and $200–$400 (motor vehicle theft). At a state-level, the costs of crime are 50 % to 70 % more or less than these national averages depending on the crime type and state. These estimates can be used to understand the level of resources spent per crime and the potential legal resources freed up for a change in reported crime rates; they are not a measure of waste or efficiency, but it is hoped this study contributes to this debate.

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  1. 1.

    As a proportion of all criminal, civil, domestic relations, juvenile, and traffic/violations cases.

  2. 2.

    Those interested in estimating the costs associated with policing drug offenses should consult Carey, Crumpton, Finigan, and Waller (2005); Caulkins and Kilmer (2013), and VCJR (2014).

  3. 3.

    A widely-cited, influential study in costs of criminal justice system (Cohen, Miller, & Rossman, 1994) uses the average time spent on cases over all Part I violent and property crimes and Part II drug-related arrests for each stage of the criminal justice system (e.g. investigation and arrest, screening and prefiling, sentencing, conditional release); thus time spent is not crime type-specific and the study does not provide cost to judicial/legal system specifically. The study does then apply the likelihood of a crime, by crime type, of reaching each main stage of the criminal justice system to generate the cost per Part I crime type for all criminal justice system services.

  4. 4.

    Assuming these workers only addressed the 4 cases. Marginal costs also capture the cost impacts to the other units of production (i.e. legal service costs for other cases).

  5. 5.

    Authors of the study offer this example to make the idea more concrete, “[s]uppose, for example, that nine out of ten court cases for robbery result in conviction and the other case results in dropped charges. The regression estimate of marginal court costs per robbery conviction includes the costs of the ten cases spread over the nine convictions in this example”(Aos et al., 2004: pg.40).

  6. 6.

    Sometimes only labor costs are considered variable. However, we cannot identify the contracted labor in the data, which may be significant and particularly important for a variable cost. Therefore, we include all labor costs and operating capital costs.

  7. 7.

    Based on time studies and actual case file audits, a weighted caseload system applies relative case “weights” measured in minutes to each filed case. It is a relative measure of how long a case type takes on average, which can include dismissed, settled, reopened, and lengthy trial cases.

  8. 8.

    Convicted refers to guilty pleas and trial. Not convicted includes cases dismissed or acquitted.

  9. 9.

    As determined by the U.S. Census Bureau and State Court Processing Statistics group of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. See Reaves (2013: pg. 32) for the methodology.

  10. 10.

    Using justice, public order, and public safety wages from the BLS (2012).

  11. 11.

    Results by state are available upon request of the authors.

  12. 12.

    If we calculated these figures based on victimizations instead of reported crimes, our cost estimates would be lower still since much victimization is not reported to the police.


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This work was supported by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (Award Number 2010-DJ-BX-1672). The authors would like to thank Samantha Cherney, Michael Robbins, and Anita Szafran for their research support. Authors would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful comments and suggestions that improved this paper. The findings and conclusions expressed in this paper are only those of the authors.

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Correspondence to Priscillia Hunt.

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Hunt, P., Anderson, J. & Saunders, J. The Price of Justice: New National and State-Level Estimates of the Judicial and Legal Costs of Crime to Taxpayers. Am J Crim Just 42, 231–254 (2017).

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  • Crime prevention
  • Legal system
  • Costs
  • Benefits