NPR Cities: Urban Life In The 21st Century
6:14 pm
Tue October 2, 2012

'Million-Dollar Blocks' Map Incarceration's Costs

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 8:16 pm

In many neighborhoods, hard truths about day-to-day life — like violent streets or crumbling schools — are readily apparent to residents, but less obvious to city and state officials.

Hard data can sometimes bridge that gap, helping policymakers better visualize which communities are doing well, and which may need additional help or resources.

The New York-based Justice Mapping Center has been providing those kinds of visuals for more than a decade. By mapping the residential addresses of every inmate in various prison systems, the center has made vividly clear a concept it calls "million-dollar blocks" — areas where more than $1 million is being spent annually to incarcerate the residents of a single census block.

Diane Orson of member station WNPR in New Haven, Conn., offers a window on how city officials there are using such maps to establish re-entry programs in neighborhoods suffering from high incarceration and recidivism rates.

First, All Things Considered's Audie Cornish talks with Eric Cadora, director of the Justice Mapping Center, about million-dollar blocks, and how the concept has been applied in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville.


Interview Highlights

On the idea of a "million-dollar block"

"[It's] a term we came up with when we were looking not at crime rates ... but rather at incarceration rates for places ... We mapped where people were going in and out of prison and jail every year, and started to look at that data at a very local level ...

"Then we were tallying up the costs of that imprisonment for each block in Brooklyn, and what we found were these million-dollar blocks — places for which the state and city of New York were spending more than $1 million a year to send people to prison and jail each year, for, on average, between two and three years ..."

On how the maps have helped change Brownsville, Brooklyn

"No one had ever actually sat down and gotten the home street address of everyone going into prison and jail, as well as all the background information about their age and their employment status, etc. And when you have all that data, it tells you a lot about what's going on on the block.

"When we look at the million-dollar blocks that we mapped almost a decade ago, it's a highly concentrated group of public housing and smaller apartment housing all grouped together in a very concentrated manner — each of which we were spending more than $1 million a year for.

"But today when ... we see those blocks, things have changed quite a bit. There has been a real investment by the city and the state, and particularly the Department of Probation, to engage with local organizations around the community and strengthen what they're doing."

On why the maps resonate with legislators and officials

"In all honesty, what we mapped was not a big surprise to people. But when you actually gather the real data ... on maps, [it becomes] immediately understandable to people who didn't see it — like legislators, city council people, researchers.

"They become almost urban planners and start to ask questions like, 'Look at all the resources around this million-dollar area, but they're not being used well. How can we take those resources, and then seek to strengthen them?' ...

"One of the things we noticed right away when legislators and others started to see this, is they talked about this issue differently. Instead of getting stuck in the 'being soft, get tough [on crime]' paradox, they started to talk about neighborhoods ...

"For example, in Connecticut, legislators started to talk there about the Hill neighborhood [in New Haven] ... and why were we spending $6 million a year to remove and return a whole range of people for technical violations, when we could be investing some of those dollars in the social and economic well-being of those places?"



For Ex-Offenders, New Beginnings

New Haven, Conn., is one of many cities around the nation that have organized programming based on million-dollar mapping. About 100 people are released to New Haven from prison each month, most returning to lower-income, high-crime areas identified on the local resource maps.

Re-entry programs, like the New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative, target ex-offenders as they return to their neighborhoods. The programs provide services like transitional housing and job training to help them make the transition back into community life, and also partner with local employers to make it easier for ex-cons to find jobs.

At a recent meet-and-greet at New Haven's police headquarters, people just out of prison are meeting with probation and parole officers. Eric Rey, coordinator for the New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative, is talking with ex-offenders about services available in their neighborhoods.

New Haven police detective Matthew Merced says the police want offenders to know they're here to help. "There's such a revolving door of people coming in and out, in and out," Merced says. "It shows a unified front that we do care about where you go down the road."

Dixwell, one of the neighborhoods highlighted on the city's million-dollar block maps, is home to Emerge Connecticut, a transitional work program for offenders who've just returned home.

Ex-offenders get up to six months of paid on-the-job training in construction, says Dan Jusino, Emerge Connecticut's executive director. In return, they agree to attend literacy classes and personal development support groups.

If ex-cons are going to make a successful transition back to society, Jusino says, personal development is just as important as job training. "They've just come out of what we call 'the yard,' which is prison, where there's a certain culture and behavior that they've mastered to survive," Jusino says. "And now we gotta really re-socialize them, but that takes work."

Today, Tywain Harris is among a handful of men cleaning out a three-story home. "Right now we're excavating. We work as a team," he explains. The program has been good for him, Harris says, "because I get the personal development, and I have a place to go in the daytime."

Bernard Goutier, 25, is also at work. He recently finished serving a nine-month sentence for marijuana possession. That was his second stint in jail, he says. "I had to learn how, you know, not put myself first, but think about everyone around me," Goutier says. "Because they always say, when you do prison time, you're not the only one doing it, your family does it with you."

Seventy-three men have been through the program so far, and, Jusino says, "We've only had three guys re-arrested on new charges, and four guys arrested on technicalities, because there wasn't the supervision."

That low recidivism rate is "unheard of," Jusino says. "I know it's only a sample number, but what most of these programs don't realize ... is they treat these guys like a job is the answer." But a job, Jusino say, is just a part of the solution for men like Harris and Goutier.

This program wouldn't exist without federal and state grants, and private funding. Emerge also received help from the New Haven community. Nearby Yale University, for example, donated the vehicles the program uses.

Most of the guys working here today live nearby. The Dixwell neighborhood sees a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back.

But the Newhallville neighborhood nearby, like Dixwell, also experiences a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back to the community, and sees its share of violent crime.

Newhallville resident Martha Millers Conyers has two sons in prison, and is skeptical that after-prison programs can do enough. Prison itself, she says, needs to do a better job preparing inmates to return to society as productive citizens.

"The young [men] come out of jail; they just walking the streets," she says. "So they never, never pay for what they did, even if they go to jail and come back."

And because so many people return unprepared, Conyers thinks the neighborhood is declining.

"The area just went down, down, down. And it's still going down," she says. "We pay taxes, and our community is just — you really have to ride through here to really see what I'm talking about."

While Conyers says she hasn't seen the benefit of re-entry programs yet, supporters say it's still too early to measure the results. The focus on re-entry is just a few years old, while most recidivism studies are much older than that.

There are hundreds of re-entry programs under way in cities across the country, and program designers are only just starting to use tools like mapping to understand how incarceration and re-entry affects communities. But, advocates say, they're an effective way to better target resources toward neighborhoods like Newhallville — and ultimately build safer cities.

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. And now, to the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS CITY NOISES)

CORNISH: There's a lot of talk these days about how cities can use data to make better decisions, and better communities. We're going to look today at one example of that, and why turning data into action can be complicated. In this particular example, the goal is to break the cycle of crime and violence that plagues certain neighborhoods. And our story begins with an idea known as a "million-dollar block."

Eric Cadora is going to explain that idea for us. He's on the street in Brooklyn, New York, where he directs the Justice Mapping Center. Eric, thanks for joining us.

ERIC CADORA: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So start by telling us what, the heck, a million-dollar block is.

CADORA: Yeah. Well, a million-dollar block was a term we came up with when we were looking closely not at crime rates, which a lot of people had been studying, but rather at incarceration rates for places. So what we did was mapped where people lived who were going in and out of prison and jail every year; and started to look at that data on a very local level. And then we were tallying up the costs of that imprisonment for each block in Brooklyn.

And what we found were these million-dollar blocks; places for which the state and city of New York were spending more than a million dollars a year to send people to prison and jail each year, for - on average - between two and three years.

CORNISH: So you're on the street in Brooklyn right now. Tell us about the block you're on, and how it applies to your work.

CADORA: Yeah, we're in a block in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and we're outside a new neighborhood-based probation office. And just behind us is a whole group of blocks for which the state and city are spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate people.

CORNISH: And, Eric, you've actually mapped this area several times. I mean, give us an example of exactly what kind of information the maps give you about the area right where you are.

CADORA: Well, let me tell you, Audie, what's different about what we did is that no one had ever actually sat down and gotten the home street address of everyone going into prison and jail, as well as all - sort of the background information about their age and their employment status, etc. And when you have that data, it tells you a lot about what's going on, on the block. And when we look at the million-dollar blocks that we mapped almost a decade ago, it's a highly concentrated group of public housing and smaller, apartment housing, all grouped together in a very concentrated manner; each of which, we're spending more than a million dollars a year for.

But today, when we look around and we see those blocks, things have changed quite a bit. There has been a real investment by the city and the state, and particularly the Department of Probation; to engage with local organizations around the community, and strengthen what they're doing. And you can see that in a lot of activities - are going on around me.

CORNISH: You've talked about what cities can do with this information, but can you get more specific? 'Cause with the map, they now have very detailed, precise statistics on something which most people who may live in such a neighborhood, know pretty intuitively.

CADORA: Yes, they do. And in fact, in all honesty, what we mapped was not a big surprise to people. But when you actually gather the real data and the real numbers, and you put them on maps, they become immediately understandable to people who didn't see it - like legislators, city council people, researchers. They become - almost urban planners; and start to ask questions like, oh, well, look at all the resources around this million-dollar area, but they're not being used well. How can we take those resources, and then seek to strengthen them; rather than come in blind with some kind of - sort of giant service center that doesn't really link with what's already going on in those neighborhoods.

CORNISH: And it's almost the flip-side of the way police use the data, right now. There's a big push of - in terms of policing, to use data to find hotspots of criminal activity.

CADORA: That's exactly right. So what we were trying to suggest was instead of law-enforcement tactics that crime mapping helps, incarceration mapping helps you think about the socio-economic dimensions that are a key to making a difference, from here out.

CORNISH: Eric, at what point did your work make the leap from the computer lab, and your hard drive, to policymakers?

CADORA: It was very soon after. Within a year, we were all over the country - from Connecticut to Kansas, etc. One - I'll tell you, Audie, one of the things we noticed right away, when legislators and others started to see this, was they talked about this issue differently. Instead of getting stuck in the being soft-get tough paradox, they started to talk about neighborhoods.

So in Connecticut, where it - which was one of the first places outside of New York we worked, legislators started to talk there about the Hill neighborhood; and why were we spending $6 million a year to remove and return a whole range of people, for technical violations, when we could be investing some of those dollars in the social and economic well-being of those places.

CORNISH: And Eric, we're actually going to turn to New Haven, Connecticut, where people - as you've said, are discussing this. Policymakers are discussing this. So Eric Cadora, of the Justice Mapping Center in Brooklyn, thanks so much for explaining it to us.

CADORA: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: And standing by in New Haven, Connecticut, now is Diane Orson of member station WNPR. Hi there, Diane.

DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Now, the program in Connecticut, it's called the Prison Re-entry Initiative. Explain it, and how it's related to this mapping.

ORSON: Well, as Eric said, the maps led to conversations here, among state reps, and several programs came out of those conversations, that were inspired by the maps; and the New Haven Prison Re-entry Initiative was one of them. It's an office here, that helps ex-offenders make that transition back home from prison. About 100 people are released from prison to New Haven each month.

CORNISH: And I take it that the maps guide - essentially, are a guide to target resources?

ORSON: Right. Once people come back to New Haven from prison, they go back to live in these communities that were identified on the maps. And the Re-entry Initiative targets those folks for services. They'll go out, for example, to police substations right in the neighborhoods, and meet with offenders. We're going to visit two of the neighborhoods - Dixwell and Newhallville. These are lower-income, high-crime areas, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

CORNISH: And people talk about re-entry work but what, exactly, does that term mean?

ORSON: It's back-end work - not so much keeping people out of incarceration in the first place, as helping people coming out of prison to build stable lives for themselves, so they won't go back. And there's all kinds of programs - transitional housing, job training. The initiative also works with employers here in New Haven, to make it easier for ex-cons to find jobs.

Actually, I'm standing right outside police department headquarters in the Hill neighborhood, one of the communities identified on the maps. Earlier this summer, I went inside. It was a day when people just out of prison were meeting with probation and parole. Eric Rey, who coordinates the Prison Re-entry Initiative, was also there, to talk with offenders about services available in their neighborhoods.

ERIC REY: So today is a meet-and-greet. And folks who are recently released from incarceration come here, get some resources that they can take advantage of in the community, as they're making their transition.

MATTHEW MERCED: Probation or parole?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Parole.

MERCED: Just sign in here - your name, your inmate number, and who your parole officer is.

ORSON: Matthew Merced is a New Haven detective. He says police want offenders to know that they're here to help.

MERCED: You know, there's such a revolving door of people coming in and out, in and out. It shows a unified front; that we do care about where you go, down the road.

ORSON: From the place where offenders first connect with services, I head out to see one of those programs in action. It's in one of the communities highlighted on the maps - Dixwell.

DAN JUSINO: How are you?

ORSON: Hi. Nice to meet you.

Dan Jusino runs a job-training program called Emerge Connecticut.

JUSINO: Emerge Connecticut is a transitional work program for former offenders who recently came home; recently, being defined as six months or less.

ORSON: Ex-offenders get up to six months of paid, on-the-job training in construction. But they also have to agree to attend literacy classes and personal-development support groups.

JUSINO: They've just come out of what we call "the yard" - which is prison, you know; where there's a certain culture and behavior that they've had - they've mastered, to survive. And now, we've got to really re-socialize them, but that takes work.

ORSON: Jusino says personal development is just as important as job training, if ex-cons are going to make a successful transition back to society.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

ORSON: Today, a handful of men are cleaning out a three-story home, so we go up to the third floor.

TYWAN HARRIS: My name is Tywan Harris.

ORSON: What are you doing here, right now?

HARRIS: Right now, we're excavating. We work as a team.

ORSON: For you, personally, has this been a good program?

HARRIS: Yes, it has - because I get the personal development, and I have a place to go in the daytime.

BERNARD GOUTIER: My name is Bernard Goutier, 25. I was only in there, this past time, for nine months.

ORSON: Have you been in there more than once?

GOUTIER: Yes, twice. First time was gun possession. The second time was possession of marijuana. I had to learn how to, you know, not put myself first, you know, but think about everyone around me, you know. Because they always say when you do prison time, you're not the only one doing it. Your family does it with you.

ORSON: As we head back outside, Jusino says he thinks the program is working. Seventy-three people have gone through, so far.

JUSINO: Of those 73, we've only had three guys rearrested on new charges, and four guys arrested on technicalities because there wasn't the supervision. But that's unheard of. You know, I know it's only a sample number but, you know, what most of the programs don't realize, Diane, is - they treat these guys like a job is the answer. A job is part of the solution.

ORSON: This program wouldn't exist without federal and state grants, and private funding. Emerge also gets lots of help from the New Haven community. Yale University, for example, just down the road, donated the vehicles they use. Most of the guys working here today, live nearby. Dixwell is a community that's seen a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back - as does the Newhallville neighborhood a few streets away. This community has had a lot of violent crime. Here's where I met Martha Miller Conyers. She has two sons in prison, and is skeptical that after-prison programs can do enough. She thinks prison itself needs to do a better job preparing inmates to return to society as productive citizens.

MARTHA MILLER CONYERS: When the young mens come out of jail, sometime they just walk in the street. So they never, never paid for what they did. Even - they go to jail and come back. They don't pay for it.

ORSON: And because so many people are coming out unprepared, she says the neighborhood is declining.

CONYERS: The area just went down, down, down. And it's still going down. We pay taxes and, you know, our communities just - I mean, you have to really ride through here, to really see what I'm talking about.

ORSON: While Martha Conyers says she hasn't seen the benefit of re-entry programs yet, supporters say it will take time. It's still too early to measure the results. This focus on re-entry is just a few years old, and most recidivism studies are a lot older than that. Right now, there are hundreds of re-entry programs under way in cities across the country. And people are starting to use tools - like mapping - as a way to understand how incarceration and re-entry affect communities. They're an effective way, they say, to better target resources toward neighborhoods like this one, and ultimately, build safer cities. At the corner of Dixwell and Argyle in New Haven, Diane Orson for the NPR Cities Project.

BLOCK: You can see some of the maps from the Justice Mapping Center, and hear more stories about urban life in the 21st century, at npr.org/nprcities. And you can follow the project on Twitter - @nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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