The Chicago Million Dollar Blocks website has published an interactive map that visualizes how much money, block by block, Chicago spends on incarcerating its citizens every year.
The map concentrates on the city blocks that spend over $1 million per year, and the results are staggering: 851 blocks spend over $1 million on prison sentences and 121 of those blocks allocated that amount for non-violent drug offenses alone. This is shown on the map in the form of pink blocks that get darker in shade the more money spent (hover your mouse over the blocks to get the exact dollar amount), with a separate setting for just viewing drug offenses. The map, developed by Dr. Daniel Cooper and Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, is based on 2005-2009 data obtained by the Chicago Justice Project.
Here are Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon on how they calculated the dollar amounts:
We derive dollar amounts from sentence lengths. Our cost assumption is that, on average, the Illinois Department of Corrections spends approximately $22,000 per year for each inmate. Life sentences are calculated based on average life expectancy.
Our cost calculation is conservative. We assume that all those convicted will only serve their minimum sentence; the actual length of time served could be longer. For people with multiple offenses, we only used the sentence from the most severe offense—while this excludes some sentences from our calculations, it means that our drug incarceration figures represent strictly nonviolent offenders. We also exclude court and policing costs, which are substantial.
The map makes it obvious that in Chicago–the most segregated city in the country–the highest incarceration rates are concentrated in a small number of community areas; namely Chicago’s low-income and predominantly black west and south sides. Meanwhile, more affluent, white areas have gone largely untouched.
When prisoners are released, they typically return to the same neighborhoods; over 50% return to prison within three years. This type of “prison cycling” is not only extremely costly, research suggests it also leads to more crime and has a devastating effect on the neighborhoods.
The project was inspired by the Million Dollar Blocks project, developed by the Spatial Information Design Lab and the Justice Mapping Center, which has created similar maps for New York City and New Haven, CT, among other cities. Speaking to NPR’s Audie Cornish about their Brownsville map, director of the Justice Mapping Center, Eric Cadora, said that although the numbers are already widely known, mapping them out visually resonates with legislatures and city officials. “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?”
Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon has a few ideas of their own for Chicago. Instead of pouring millions of dollars into incarcerating prisoners–many of them for low-level offenses–the city could reinvest their tax dollars to address the root causes of crime and rebuild healthy economies in high-incarceration neighborhoods. Even simple solutions like addiction treatment and mental health programs are much more cost-effective than prison sentences.