Not Your Average "Million Dollar Block": Mass Incarceration's Impact on Chicago

For some, the phrase “Million Dollar Block” calls to mind Fifth Avenue or Beverly Hills.  However two researchers are challenging the way that we traditionally think about them. When Laura Kurgan of Columbia University and Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center speak of “million dollar blocks,” they are talking about blocks where the American public is paying over $1 million per year to incarcerate the block’s residents.  Unfortunately, the results of this type of concentrated investment are very different.

Using data from the criminal justice system, the working group began to explore the “geography of incarceration”; in other words, the former addresses of people who are currently in prison.   What they found was a visually stunning concentration of incarceration in certain neighborhoods.  “The maps suggest that the criminal justice system has become the predominant government institution in certain communities,” the report found.  

For many, government spending in low-income neighborhoods equates to the government giving their hard-earned money away to people who are unable or unwilling to meet their own basic needs. This perspective on government spending creates a lot of bitterness. Because the geographies of opportunity, poverty, and race are so intertwined, misconceptions about “government handouts” negatively influence the way many people perceive those who live below the poverty line.. This study points out a surprising reality: our government is spending much more on incarceration than on “handouts.”

Chicago: A Poster Child for Backward Investment

The extreme concentration of homes of incarcerated Americans is notable, both in terms of why so many people end up in the prison system and the effects of that loss on a community.  The concentration is so clear, in fact, that a Washington Post article called it “a war on neighborhoods.”

  The concentration of million dollar blocks on Chicago’s West Side. Photo via Washington Post. 

The concentration of million dollar blocks on Chicago’s West Side. Photo via Washington Post. 

The article highlights my city, Chicago, as a poster child for this type of backward investment and includes a detailed map of our million dollar blocks. Incarceration rates are high and highly concentrated.  There are 851 blocks in Chicago where the public has committed more than $1 million to sentencing. This level of concentration suggests that “we are unjustly punishing people for their circumstances, not just their actions.” If we overlay a map of race based on census data, we will also see that the majority of residents in these low-income communities with disproportionate incarceration rates are black or Hispanic.

Because Chicago’s incarcerated residents come from and return to a few concentrated areas, impacts on families and neighborhoods in these areas are amplified.  Due to their concentration, the road to reintegration (already a difficult one) is even harder for former prisoners.  The social, political, and economic capital required to welcome and support this population is stretched thin in these communities. Competition is stiff for jobs and social services, which, in these areas, can be difficult to obtain even without a criminal record.

Studies have also shown that our investment in incarceration has been quite ineffective.

  “In Illinois, more than 50% of prisoners eventually return to prison within three years. What’s more, recent research shows that prison cycling — the constant cycling of people in and out of prison in neighborhoods like Chicago’s west and south sides — may actually lead to more crime. Another recent study indicates that incarceration, at best, likely had zero effect on crime between the years of 2000-2013. At worst it may have increased crime.” 

With this information in hand, what can we do about it?  I believe there are two clear steps forward:

1. We must use this data to educate citizens and lawmakers and advocate for policies that reduce incarceration rates

2. We must invest a portion of those cost savings back into “million dollar blocks” through programs that reduce recidivism and address root issues.

The Case for Reducing Incarceration Rates

By investing in mass incarceration, we are treating symptoms without addressing their causes. Drugs, violence, and gangs flourish in communities that lack access to education, jobs in the mainstream economy, and trust in the police force. 

Between 2005-2009, there were 121 blocks in Chicago where over $1million was committed to prison sentences for non-violent drug offenses. People are losing sons, girlfriends, husbands, and grandchildren to prisons.  These individuals are losing opportunities to secure stable honest jobs, to remain in school, to create dependable relationships.  Instead, the government could be helping to provide access to decent affordable housing with supportive services; investing in good school administrators, teachers, books, and facilities; providing workforce development programs; providing affordable general and mental healthcare; and helping people address addictions.

As taxpayers, but more importantly as people of faith concerned with the plight of communities that grow up at a disadvantage, we need to insist that our lawmakers and fellow voters understand the problem of mass incarceration and redirect their attention and our money toward programs and policies that seek to bring these rates down. 

Investing in Programs that Work

The second task, convincing the average voter that faith communities, non-profits, and the government all have a role to play in leveling the playing field by investing in these million dollar block neighborhoods, will be more difficult.  We will need to highlight programs that are working. 

There are some successful organizations and government programs that focus on working to reduce recidivism, others that invest in improving education and employment opportunities, some that build better infrastructure and bring affordable transportation options providing increased accessibility, and others that provide counseling, medical treatment, and referrals to other social services.  These types of investment are more likely to provide opportunities and improve outcomes for people in these neighborhoods.  Leaders in these fields need their voices amplified and their operations funded. 

I work for an organization that invests money in housing targeted to lower income individuals and households. I find that the “housing first” strategy, which focuses on providing permanent, stable, affordable housing to people experiencing homelessness or housing instability in conjunction with the services residents need to maintain that housing, is a great way to pull together multiple partners (government, private, and non-profit) to address the needs of some of America’s most vulnerable populations.  However, until recently, I had not heard of any housing projects designed for returning citizens.  On a trip to Minneapolis last month, I met with a group that is planning to do just that.

Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative is securing funding to build a new housing development targeted specifically to individuals coming out of the prison system. This project sprung out of a desire by two congregations, Plymouth Congregational Church and Westminster Presbyterian Church, to serve this population.  Their support and advocacy has been essential in pushing the project through local approval processes and in securing funding.  Beacon will also leverage public and private equity, including federal low-income housing and historic tax credits, rental assistance vouchers, private construction loans, and other state and local gap financing, including funds from the states penal system which are targeted at reducing recidivism.  Beacon will also partner with a local service provider, Better Futures Minnesota, to provide residents with case management, job training and placement, and other supportive services. 

In Minnesota, a strong commitment to the housing first harm reduction model has reduced homelessness and improved outcomes for other groups. Through a special rental subsidy program (Group Residential Housing) targeted at groups that cannot work, the state has also saved money on individuals who would otherwise receive most of their healthcare and support in more expensive emergency rooms, detox centers, and assisted living facilities. 

This project hopes to accomplish something similar for a different population.  Here too, the housing first model will save the taxpayers a significant amount of money if it can successfully reduce recidivism.  Moreover, congregations, non-profits, private investors, and local, state, and federal governments are answering the moral call to love and care for all people, including former inmates and their communities.

The Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative provides an excellent model for engaging congregations and policy makers and bringing together various partners and funders. There is not a Beacon in every community, and not everyone is passionate or knowledgeable about affordable housing. Regardless, as Christians concerned about public justice, we can and should leverage the resources, expertise, and political clout we can bring to this issue.  Moving our millions away from incarceration and toward community revitalization is a worthy goal from both a moral and fiscal standpoint. 

-Anne Fennema works as a Project Manager at the National Equity Fund, a national non-profit that helps fund affordable housing.  She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English from Calvin College and a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of Michigan.