Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The costs of incarceration are concentrated in low-income, predominantly black communities in the city.
In America, $22,000 can pay for a lot of things. It’s a little over the average annual cost of attending a four-year university. It’s a little under the annual per-client cost of ‘housing first’ programs for the homeless, across several cities. And it’s just under the average annual cost to house one inmate in a minimum-security federal prison.
The Illinois Department of Corrections, too, spends about $22,000 per year on each of its inmates—a conservative estimate, based on sentence lengths. In Chicago, this spending is largely concentrated on residents from low-income, segregated, and predominantly black communities.
From 2005 to 2009, there were 851 city blocks that each represented $1 million in prison sentence costs. $550 million was committed to the west side neighborhood of Austin. West Englewood, in southwest Chicago, represented $197 million. Many of these dollars went to sentencing non-violent, drug-related offenses.
Now, a new map makes Chicago’s “Million Dollar Blocks” more starkly apparent than ever—and helps us imagine how that money could be far, far better spent.
Yes, crime rates are high in many of these neighborhoods. But research has shown that economic disadvantage predicts incarceration much more strongly than crime. And by wreaking havoc on the social capital and labor market of these neighborhoods, concentrated incarceration—which is hardly unique to Chicago—may actually increase crime rates and recidivism.
Indeed, experts increasingly agree that incarceration is not the most effective way of reducing crime in neighborhoods. Workforce development programs and treatment options for people with addictions and mental illnesses are vital alternative approaches to crime reduction. They can help de-stigmatize these communities of concentrated poverty and incarceration, another crucial factor in “overcoming the vicious cycle of crime production, victimization, incapacitation, and disadvantage.”
And they can be more cost-effective than incarceration—so that, one day, that $22,000 could not toward keeping someone in jail, and more towards college, housing, or a thousand other productive things.