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How Much Does Crime Cost?

Posted on November 29, 2017
Burglary, murder, identity theft—all crimes have costs for victims and society. The Department of Justice reported that federal, state, and local governments spent more than $280 billion in 2012 on criminal justice, including police protection, the court system, and prisons. However, there are many other costs that researchers consider when estimating the total cost of crime in the United States. These can include tangible costs like replacing damaged property, and intangible costs like victims’ pain and suffering. Today’s WatchBlog takes a look at our recent report on how researchers calculate these costs—and why these costs matter. Estimating costs We found that there is no commonly used approach to estimating the costs of crime. Researchers have estimated varying annual costs of crime in the United States that range from $690 billion to $3.41 trillion. One reason that developing an accurate estimate is challenging is the difficulty of determining the intangible costs of crime.

Figure 1: Examples of Costs of Crime and Elements of Costs Such as Tangible or Intangible, the Relationship in Time to a Crime, and Who Bears the Cost of Crime(Excerpted from GAO-17-732)

Other challenges Even just knowing how much crime occurs is difficult. For example, information collected on white-collar crime (e.g., embezzlement) and cyber-related crime (e.g., online identify theft) is much less complete than information on physical violence or property crimes. Additionally, methods that researchers use to estimate costs may require many complex steps, which can lead to greater uncertainty in the total estimate. For example, one study estimated that premature deaths from methamphetamine use cost about $4.9 billion, but actual costs could be higher or lower.

Figure 2: Complexity of Estimating the Cost of Premature Death from Methamphetamine Use(Excerpted from GAO-17-732)

Cost of crime estimates and policy Crime cost estimates can help inform criminal justice policies. For example, the state of Washington uses these estimates to help identify juvenile crime prevention programs that are most effective at reducing crime and its costs to society.

Figure 4: Using Cost of Crime Estimates to Evaluate the Costs and Benefits of Criminal Justice Policy for the State of Washington(Excerpted from GAO-17-732)

To learn more about the costs of crime in the United States, check out our full report.