Million-Dollar Blocks

The neighborhood costs of America's prison boom

Professor Clear, who has worked closely with Cadora, says the maps suggest a different sort of solution: "Use some of that money to improve the places those people came from in the first place, so that they are not crime-production neighborhoods." This might sound like a fantasy scenario—and a few years ago, that's all it really was. Just a radical idea, to which Cadora and a colleague gave a wonkish name: "justice reinvestment."

But budget shortfalls have a way of encouraging politicians to re-evaluate even the most popular policies, and many states have concluded that they simply cannot afford to keep so many people in prison.

For the most part, states that have shrunk their inmate populations have then steered the savings into a general fund. One state, however, has reinvested in the neighborhoods that are home to the bulk of its prisoners.

Details

One Tenant Leader's Take

Ronald Ward has never heard of a "million-dollar block," but he's lived on one for years—in the Howard Houses in Brownsville, Brooklyn. When he talks about crime, he doesn't talk about statistics or dollars or maps. He talks about what he's seen: young men selling drugs out of his lobby; parole officers who have become a regular presence in his project; men who have come home from long prison stays, only to end up selling drugs once again.

"Most of the crime is committed against the people who live here—the muggings, the burglaries," says Ward, 61, a tenant leader who has been living in the Howard Houses for 43 years. "Crime here is really so rampant." There is one particular crime that he is less eager to discuss. Fourteen years ago, his 20-year-old son was out driving a cab when two men got in, pointed a gun at him, then shot him in the head. His son died three weeks later. "Losing a child—I had never experienced that kind of trauma," he says.

When Ward learned that he lived on a million-dollar block, he wasn't surprised. Many of his project's residents go to work every day, he says, but "we've got people with problems." Empty refrigerators, crack addiction, illiteracy. If legislators asked him how to stop the cycle of imprisonment, he says he'd tell them: "Stop the racism." And he'd advise them to improve the schools. "If you don't educate people, you keep them powerless," he says. "They need to understand the system they're living in. When people become aware of that, then they can get out of it." J.G.

Until recently, Connecticut had a $500 million budget deficit and more prisoners than it could house. State Representative Michael P. Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven, joined with fellow legislators in 2003 to introduce a bill that would scale down the inmate population and funnel the savings into social programs. To win over their colleagues, the legislators invited Cadora to present his maps.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," says Lawlor, a former prosecutor who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "I think Eric is able to graphically depict the insanity of our current system for preventing crimes in certain neighborhoods. We're spending all of this money and not getting very good results. I think when you look at it the way Eric is able to depict it in those neighborhood graphs, you can see how crazy this all is."

Connecticut legislators passed the bill this spring. To shrink the prison population, they adopted several strategies, including reducing the number of people sent to prison for violating probation rules. And they steered the savings into services designed to curb recidivism, including mental-health care and drug treatment. Programs in New Haven—which has many high-incarceration neighborhoods—will receive $2.5 million.

"It's a huge precedent, even though it's a small state," says Michael Jacobson, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, who worked as a consultant for the Connecticut legislature and wrote about the experience in his forthcoming book, Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration. "It's the first state that through legislation has simultaneously done a bunch of things that will intelligently lower its prison population, and then reinvest a significant portion of that savings in the kind of things that will keep lowering its prison population. No other state has done anything like that."


The idea may be starting to catch on. In Louisiana, three state senators introduced a bill earlier this year that proposed to trim the prison population, save more than $3 million a year, and then spend that savings on helping ex-prisoners find jobs. The bill did not pass, but the idea caught the attention of Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, whose state has the highest rate of incarceration in the country. She invited representatives of three foundations, including Cadora, to a luncheon at the governor's mansion. At the request of her office, Cadora will be creating many more detailed maps of Louisiana.

New York's situation is slightly different from those of Louisiana and Connecticut. While the national prison population continues to rise, New York's inmate population has actually been dropping, from a high of 71,538 inmates in December 1999 to fewer than 65,000 today. Without overcrowded prisons—and without a budget crisis like the one Connecticut was facing—there isn't the same sense of urgency in the state legislature.

This past spring, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced a bill to establish the New York State Justice Reinvestment Fund, a $10 million pilot program to finance organizations that assist ex-prisoners. Though the bill has 10 co-sponsors, its prospects of passing in the Republican-controlled senate are slim. The state assembly included a provision in its drug-law reform bill this year to commission more prison-spending maps, but that bill didn't pass the senate either.

A map of million-dollar blocks, with stark concentrations of color, can quickly convey a sense of how self-defeating many criminal-justice policies have become—how, for example, spending exorbitant amounts of money locking people up means there's far less money available for programs that decrease crime, like education, drug treatment, mental-health care, and job training. But these maps don't tell the whole story, since they don't show what happens after inmates are set free.

New York's state prisons release around 28,000 people a year. Nearly two-thirds of them return to New York City. They arrive wearing state-issued clothes—a plain sweatshirt and stiff denim pants—and they come back to the same streets they left. They bring home all the memories and lessons of prison life, plus the system's parting gift, $40. Usually, they discover that the neighborhoods they left behind have not changed, and that life on the outside can be incredibly difficult. If the past is any predictor, 40 percent of them will be back upstate within three years.

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