If you have ever wondered just how hard it is for kids from broken neighborhoods to avoid prison, a glance at data compiled by the Justice Mapping Center gives an easy answer: it's even harder than you might think.
While crime is up around the nation and spread out across cities in a broad pattern, the majority of people convicted of crimes come from very few and very concentrated neighborhoods, according to the center, a Brooklyn-based research group that tracks the declared residency of convicts. More than 50% of adult male inmates from New York City come from just 14 districts in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn (with the most, about 12%, coming from East and Central Harlem) even though men in those 14 areas make up just 17% of the city's total population. Similar patterns can be seen in places like Phoenix--where one community, South Mountain, is home to 1% of Arizona's total population but 6.5% of the state's inmates--and Austin, Texas, where one section has 19% of the city's population but 27% of those on probation.
Why does this matter? Because, say Eric Cadora and Charles Swartz, who run the Justice Mapping Center, if you can pinpoint the few-block area that produces the most criminals, you can create programs that specifically target the problems of the people who live there and help them avoid the behaviors that land them in jail. That, in return, could save millions of dollars. New York State spends $42,000 an inmate a year. Multiply that by the number of prisoners who grew up on the same streets in parts of Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn, and you get what Cadora calls "million-dollar blocks" because that's what it costs the state to keep criminals from those areas behind bars. It's hard to argue that this money couldn't be better spent. "If you had ... this block and that million dollars, would you do the same thing?" asks Cadora.
Some communities are saying no. Framing the debate as one of economics rather than simply social justice can provide political cover for officials to try out innovative alternatives to traditional incarceration. In the vanguard of this movement was the juvenile-justice department of Deschutes County, Ore., which about 10 years ago made a deal with the state: if Deschutes reduced the number of juveniles it sent to state-run detention centers, Oregon would give back to the county the money that it had been spending to incarcerate those Deschutes kids. By giving up 16 out of 26 beds for young offenders at the state facility, Deschutes recouped nearly $4 million over seven years and put that money toward what it called the Community Youth Investment Program. The county assigned social workers to provide guidance and parenting skills in homes with newborns who had at least one parent on probation or parole. It began screening kindergartners for antisocial tendencies; those most at risk were singled out for special attention.
Of course, teens continued to assault people and steal cars. But instead of going to the state-run jail, those caught and convicted had to make various community-building reparations like apologizing to the victim, paying restitution and participating in service projects or apprenticeships. In seven years the county's youth-incarceration rate dropped 25%, and the number of teens who received citations or were arrested for crimes went down 28%. According to Bob La Combe, who runs the county's juvenile system, young people are "making the connection between the crime they committed and the harm to the community." The state, however, may take more convincing. Because of budget cuts, Oregon stopped funding the program in 2003. The community-based justice initiative is now paid for by Deschutes, but money for some of the preventive measures is likely to run out this summer.
Funding will probably always be a problem for these kinds of projects. But even some conservatives are realizing that being tough on crime for the past three decades hasn't reduced the disproportionate number of criminals coming from certain areas. The Department of Justice now backs about 300 Weed and Seed programs nationwide, some in areas as small as a few square blocks. Police, prosecutors and neighborhood-watch groups collaborate to weed out the drug dealers and other undesirables, while public and private social-service providers seed the area with wholesome extracurricular activities, new community centers, job counseling and beautification projects that offer residents an alternative way of life. "Criminal justice isn't what makes people behave," Cadora says. "You strengthen the institutions so people have a stake in things."