April V. Taylor
While most people think of inner city neighborhoods as places where a lack of money accentuates nearly aspect of residents lives, in a truly American twist of irony those same city blocks that are defined by their poverty have come to be known as ‘million dollar blocks.’ The term was first coined by Laura Kurgan and Eric Cadora to describe the perverse way that public investment plays out in poor, minority neighborhoods through spending on mass incarceration.
There are endless statistics that highlight the massive size and exorbitant cost of the American criminal justice system, but the fact that there are now multiple cities where taxpayers spend more than a million dollars locking up the residents of one single city block highlights the problem in a new way. Daniel Cooper, Ryan Lugalla-Hollon and Matt Barrington have recently spent time studying how this phenomenon plays out in Chicago, one of the countries most divided and violent cities.
According to their research, there are 851 city blocks in Chicago where taxpayers are paying more than a million dollars sending the neighborhood’s residents to state prisons. Highlighting the devastating and costly impact of the War on Drugs is the fact that 121 of those 851 blocks is costing taxpayers more than a million dollars just for nonviolent drug offenses.
Keeping in line with Chicago’s segregated history, many of the million dollar blocks are located in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of the city. The cycle of incarceration that leaves children without their parents, families without breadwinners, and communities that must support former inmates who cannot find employment creates a revolving door where the consequences of incarceration are concentrated into small pockets where the city’s most vulnerable residents live.
Chicago isn’t alone; New York, New Orleans and other major cities make the list, and with so many communities left to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of incarceration, many are wondering if the millions of dollars being spent to lock people up could be invested in a way that stifled the school to prison pipeline, treated addiction as the disease it is instead of a crime the state and private prisons can profit from, and gave Americans an opportunity to succeed, eliminating the need for second chances by making sure people achieve life goals and milestones the first time around.
Researcher Daniel Cooper points out how quick people are to talk about how violent Chicago is and how slow they are to talk about the reasons behind the violence. Cooper also points out that even though evidence does not support the use of incarceration to improve outcomes, people are still “punished and removed from their communities.”
Researcher Lugalia-Hollon perhaps sums it up best by stating, “The country’s at a point where it’s starting to wake up to this. Some of that is fiscally motivated, which is okay. But if folks look at the Web site and just say ‘Oh man, we’re wasting dollars,’ they’re not getting the whole story. We’re also wasting lives. We’re wasting communities. We’re losing families.”