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Bernie Sanders says it's a "simple truth" that it costs a lot more to send someone to prison rather than to U.Va. But the truth isn't that simple. (AP Photo) Bernie Sanders says it's a "simple truth" that it costs a lot more to send someone to prison rather than to U.Va. But the truth isn't that simple. (AP Photo)

Bernie Sanders says it's a "simple truth" that it costs a lot more to send someone to prison rather than to U.Va. But the truth isn't that simple. (AP Photo)

By Sean Gorman November 23, 2015

Sanders says it costs more to go prison than to the University of Virginia

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., says society needs to figure out a way to focus more on educating people and less on throwing them behind bars.

After all, Sanders told an Oct. 28 rally at George Mason University, it’s a simple matter of dollars and cents.

"And here’s the simple truth: It costs a hell of a lot more money to put somebody in jail than send them to the University of Virginia," Sanders said.

Sanders invoked U.Va.’s attendance costs to help buttress his call for reforming the criminal justice system with an eye toward lowering incarceration costs.

We wondered if the truth really is as simple as Sanders says it is, so we asked his campaign how he justified his claim. Warren Gunnels, the Sanders campaign policy director, sent us two figures to prove his point.

Cost of incarceration

For the cost of imprisonment, Gunnels cited a statistic from the Federal Bureau of Prisons published in March that says the average cost of incarcerating federal inmates was $30,619 in fiscal 2014.

But federal prisoners represent the smallest proportion of the U.S. inmate population. About 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S., according to figures from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. About 200,000 are in federal prisons. Another 1.3 million are in state prisons, while another 700,000 are in local jails.

Looking just at state prison inmates in the U.S., a 2014 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the average per-prisoner cost was $28,323 in 2010, the latest year for which figures were available. And that per-prisoner cost varies from state to state.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that researches criminal justice issues, in 2012 published a report that listed state-by-state spending per inmate in 2010. The annual cost per inmate ranged from a low of $14,603 in Kentucky to a high of $60,076 in New York.

In the Virginia prison system, the average inmate cost for fiscal 2014 was $27,462, according to a report by the state Department of Corrections.

Cost of attending the University of Virginia

For the cost of sending someone to U.Va., Gunnels pointed us to a "Tuition, Fees and Cost of Attendance" table on the school’s website.

Gunnels zeroes in on a part of that table that says undergraduate in-state tuition for a freshman was $10,016 in the 2013-14 school year. For students in U.Va.’s engineering school, tuition was a bit higher at $12,016.

These tuition figures would be lower than any of the prison costs. But there are major expenses that the tuition figure does not take into account.

Many students have to pay for other things, such as room, board and books, among other expenses. A link to the U.Va. student financial services website provides an overall estimated cost to attend the school during the 2013-14 academic year that lumps tuition along with all those other costs to attend. The annual estimated in-state cost ranged from $26,166 for nursing students to $31,276 for commerce students.

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For students who commute and don’t have to pay for housing, the estimated expense is much smaller: $18,436.

Beyond the amount students and their parents pay, the state contributes some money to help pay for the education of U.Va. students who live in Virginia. In the 2013-14 school year, state support for every "full-time equivalent" in-state student at U.Va. came to $8,845, said Dan Hix, the finance director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the state agency that tracks state spending on college costs.

You add everything up - tuition, housing and other expenses along with the state contribution of a Virginia student’s educational costs - and the overall cost easily would outpace the nearly $31,000 figure that Gunnels cited.

Also, these expenses are only for in-state students. Anyone attending from out-of-state pays a lot more. Virginia does not contribute a dime to the cost of educating out-of-state residents, who saw the price of tuition alone of about $36,720 in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.Va. table Gunnels cited.

That cost doesn’t include any room and board fees those non-Virginia students would pay. The U.Va. financial aid website says the total for tuition and other expenses for out-of-state residents could range from $53,942 to $59,922.

Of U.Va.’s 15,669 undergraduate students, 31 percent are attending from out of state, said Anthony de Bruyn, a university spokesman.

Prison sentences vs. college tenure

These prison and college costs all are annual figures. The final price tag for housing a prisoner easily could be lower than the full in-state cost of attending U.Va., if that inmate is serving a sentence of less than the four-year span of a typical bachelor’s degree education. On the other hand, if that prisoner is serving more than four years, it easily could outpace the cost most students pay to attend U.Va.

The Pew Charitable Trusts this month released a report that said the average amount of time federal prisoners served was 37.5 months in 2012, or just over three years. Those serving time for drug crimes spent an average of nearly 5 years behind bars.

Pew estimated in a previous report that state prisoners released in 2009 had been incarcerated for an average of 2.9 years, but Pew doesn’t have more recent figures. Local jails typically are short-term facilities where inmates are held while awaiting trial or while serving sentences of less than 12 months, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

For Virginia state prisoners released in 2014, the average length of time served was 42.8 months, or roughly 3.6 years, according to the Department of Corrections.

Our ruling

Sanders said "It costs a hell of a lot more money to put somebody in jail than send them to the University of Virginia."

He starts his calculation with a figure of the nearly $31,000 average cost for a federal prisoner. Prisoners held by state corrections systems in the U.S., on average, cost closer to $28,000, based on the latest figures available. In Virginia, that is a little more than $27,000.

Sanders’ campaign compares prison costs only to the cost of tuition at U.Va. That figure represents a significant low-ball for many U.Va. students, who pay the added costs of room and board as well as other fees.

U.Va. estimates of the full cost for attending in the 2013-14 school year ranged from $26,000 to $31,000 for in-state students. That price doesn’t include an additional $8,800 the state provided to pay for Virginia undergraduates’ education. Out-of-state students’ bottom-line cost can range from $54,000 to $60,000.

When all those costs are put together, they exceed the annual prisoner costs Sanders cites.

Still, the truth behind Sanders’ statement rests to some extent on the length of sentence for each prisoner and where they are held. If their incarceration surpasses four years, then it easily could surpass the cost of sending a student to the University of Virginia. Also, if that prisoner is held in a state such as New York, with high state prisoner incarceration costs of roughly $60,000 annually, it also could outpace the cost of sending someone to U.Va.

We rate his claim Half True.

Our Sources

Bernie Sanders comments at George Mason University, Oct. 28, 2015.

Email from Warren Gunnels, policy director for Bernie Sanders campaign, Oct. 30, 2015.

Federal Register, "Annual determination of average cost of incarceration," March 9, 2015.

University of Virginia, "Tuition, fees & estimated cost of attendance," accessed Nov. 4, 2015.

Interview from Dan Hix, finance policy director at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Nov. 4, 2015.

Email from Dan Hix, Nov. 17, 2015.

Emails from Elizabeth Carson, statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Nov. 19, 2015.

Emails from Anthony P. de Bruyn, University of Virginia spokesman, Nov. 18, 2015.

State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, "2015-2016 tuition and fees at Virginia’s state-supported colleges and universities," July 31, 2015.

Emails from Lisa Kinney, director of communications at the Virginia Department of Corrections, Nov. 4 and Nov. 17, 2015.

Email from Amber Widgery, criminal justice program policy associate at the National Conference of State Legislatures, Nov. 4, 2015.

Interview with Darienne Gutierrez, senior communications associate at the Pew Charitable Trusts, Nov. 17, 2015.

Pew Charitable Trusts, "The long reach of American corrections," March 2, 2009.

Pew Charitable Trusts, "Time served: The high cost, low return of longer prison terms," June 6, 2012.

Pew Charitable Trusts, "Prison time surges for federal inmates," Nov. 18, 2015.

Vera Institute of Justice, "The price of prison: What incarceration costs taxpayers," Feb. 29, 2012.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, State Corrections expenditures, FY 1982-2010, April 30, 2014.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Prisoners in 2010," Feb. 9, 2012.

Virginia Department of Corrections, "Management information summary report" for year ending June 30, 2014.

Wall Street Journal, "Cost of housing federal prisoners continues to rise," March 15, 2015.

Cavalier Daily, "As college costs rise, student debt piles on," March 27, 2014.

Email from Federal Bureau of Prisons, Office of Public Affairs, Nov. 9, 2015.

Federal Bureau of Prisons, "Federal prison system per capita costs: Fiscal year 2014," accessed Nov. 18, 2015.

U.S. Department of Education College Navigator, accessed Nov. 18, 2015.

University of Virginia, "Estimated cost of attendance 2013-2014," accessed Nov. 18, 2015.

Virginia Department of Corrections, "State responsible offender population trends FY 2010-FY 2014," July 2015.

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Sanders says it costs more to go prison than to the University of Virginia

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