Sunday, March 29, 2009

More on the Geography of Incarceration: The Disappearing Men of New York City

Or rather: the disappearing men of Harlem, the South Bronx, and north Brooklyn. Another map - this one from Matt Kelley's Criminal Justice blog - reinforces the phenomenon of the heavy geographic concentration of the neighborhoods that are the source of prisoners.

Says Kelley:
The circled areas above have just 17% of the city's male residents, but 50% of its male prisoners. In two districts just above Harlem, 6% of men are sent upstate. [The Justice Mapping Center] has coined the term "million-dollar blocks" for single city blocks where the city is spending over $1 million to incarcerate former residents.
I just want to expand a little bit on what I said yesterday. The high cost of security nad incarceration for the prisoners who come from these sorts of neighborhoods is a considerable social cost in itself. But a further social cost is the disproportionate disruption of these communities: most people who go to prison belong to significant social networks; lots of them have families for whom they provide economic and emotional support, etc. Every time a person gets sent to prison, those social networks get disrupted. And when those disrupted social networks are heavily concentrated, it's easy to see how those social disruptions can take a cumulative toll on the neighborhood, and set off positive feedbacks which reinforce the patterns of crime, incarceration, and recidivism.

I don't know what the best policies would be to develop these neighborhoods into stable, functioning urban environments, as well as to reduce urban crime. But it seems worth pointing out that at least a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for that to happen would be the stabilization of the social networks which comprise those neighborhoods. I think both liberals and conservatives would agree to that. But high incarceration rates are surely working at cross-purposes to that goal. One might argue anyways that those high rates are necessary, on either moral or practical grounds; but their socially disruptive effect should at least be part of the conversation.


Richard said...

Big assumption here. You say that the men who get sent to prison provide emotional and financial support. But what's their net impact on society? I imagine that someone who shot someone is likely to have, on net, contributed negatively on the emotional and financial fronts, assuming that he didn't shoot a guy who contributed nothing to society and had no friends or relatives.

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