Frequently Asked Questions

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Search through the following list for quick answers to the most commonly asked questions about At What Cost? Examining Police, Sheriff, and Jail Budgets Across the US.

How do you define “carceral” spending? 

“Carceral” refers to a system of practices, programs, and institutions that use policing, surveillance, monitoring, criminalization, and other forms of state-sanctioned punishment to address social problems. This punishment is often (but not exclusively) carried out through the imprisonment of individuals in detention centers, jails, and prisons.

In a city or county’s operating budget, the carceral system is perhaps most felt at the level of funding for police and sheriff departments, youth detention systems, and jail staff and services. As such, for this dashboard, we define “carceral spending” as spending on police departments, sheriff's departments, jails, and youth detention.

Why does the dashboard focus on cities and counties' fiscal year 2022 budgets?

This dashboard focuses on the 2022 approved budgets of selected cities and counties because they were the most recently available approved budgets during the project’s initial stage. Specifically, the data reflect the fiscal year 2022 budgets, which, depending on the dates of the local government’s fiscal year, are described as “fiscal year 2022” or “fiscal year 2021-22” in a given budget’s documentation.

Is capital spending on the carceral system included in the dashboard?

Many local governments separate their operating budget, which funds regular government operations, from their capital budget, which funds building renovations and other large one-time purchases.

For comparability across cities and counties, this dashboard focuses on operating budgets. In cases where the local government includes capital projects as part of the total budget, the dashboard separates these expenses in order to focus on operating expenses only.

What is a “general fund”? And why does the dashboard focus so much on it?

“General funds” are all-purpose funds raised by cities and counties through collecting property and sales taxes (and other sources) that can be allocated to support typical government services. Unlike special revenue funds (funds earmarked by law for specific purposes) or enterprise funds (funds raised from user fees for specific services), the general fund can be used more flexibly.

Many city and county budgets describe their general fund as including all funding not required to be accounted for in another specific fund. This makes the general fund an important account of the resources a local community has within its control to address the needs of its residents. In other words, how the general fund is used is an indicator of the priorities and solutions receiving resources in a city or county.

You can find out how your city or county defines its general fund on the dashboard’s “About the Data” page.

Why do some parts of the dashboard focus on local spending per resident?

Some charts feature spending per resident to enable users to compare spending across cities and counties that have very different population sizes.

Why do some locations have missing or incomplete numbers and charts?

While every effort was made to provide as complete a dataset as possible for all of the geographic areas in the dashboard, some budgetary data were not available to analyze. In some cases, a 2022 budget was not available for review. For example, Hinds County, Mississippi, (where Jackson is located) did not publish a 2022 budget. In other cases, a city and county may correspond exactly to one another, leading to only one budget being available for the whole geographic area. This is the situation in Philadelphia, Nashville, and New Orleans/Orleans Parish, where the data is present in the “City” and “Both City and County” views, but not in the “County” view.

You can find more information on each geographic area’s unique budgetary circumstances on the dashboard’s “About the Data” page.

Who do I contact if I want a demonstration or more information on how to make use of the dashboard?

We’d love to assist you in exploring how to use the dashboard or leverage its data in your budget advocacy work. To submit a request for additional support, please complete the Atlas contact form.

Need Additional Support? If you have a question that you don't see listed, please submit it through the Atlas contact form.