Chicago's 'Million-Dollar Blocks'

Jan 13, 2016

State of the State Podcast:
A New Way To Think About 'High-Crime' Neighborhoods

TRANSCRIPT: From NPR Illinois, it’s State of the State. I’m Brian Mackey, and the state of the state today is throwing away the key.

DANIEL COOPER: “Instead of, ‘This is a dangerous, violent neighborhood,’ the idea is, ‘This is actually a place where we’re investing heavily in suppression and incarceration.’"

We’re going to hear from a researcher in Chicago whose team is using data to try to reframe the way people look at crime in the city.

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that in the first 10 days of the year, more than 100 people have been shot in the city of Chicago. Nineteen have been killed. Most of the violence in Chicago happens in a relatively small number of neighborhoods. These are some of the most segregated, low-income areas of the city. You might also call these high-crime areas, but Dan Cooper says there’s a better way to think about these neighborhoods and their so-called “million-dollar blocks."

Cooper is based at Adler University in Chicago, where he heads the Institute on Social Exclusion. He works on community development — helping local groups be more effective at things like organizing and violence prevention. I spoke with him in a conference room at Adler, and began by asking: What is a million-dollar block?

COOPER: “The term was coined by some folks in New York — Laura Kurgan, Eric Cadora and some researchers at the Spatial Information Design Lab — which is a way of framing the issue of incarceration to move it away from the idea of offenses and really focus on how much money the state is spending on neighborhoods. So instead of, ‘This is a dangerous, violent neighborhood,’ the idea is, ‘This is actually a place where we’re investing heavily in suppression and incarceration.'

“So in places like the west side of Chicago — Austin for example — there are many blocks where, when we hand out sentences for anything, could be nonviolent drug offenses or violent crimes, over the life of those sentences we will end up spending well in upwards of a million dollars on that block. So you think of neighborhoods where there’s few resources for education and schools, where meanwhile we’re spending upwards of millions of dollars in that block to remove people and lock them up."

MACKEY: “How many million-dollar blocks are in Chicago?"

COOPER: “So according to our research, just over a five year period of sentences there were 851 blocks where we’ve committed over a million dollars to prison sentences in general, and 121 blocks with over a million dollars committees to prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. So a lot of blocks where we would consider them million dollar blocks."

MACKEY: “Are these blocks spread out all over the city? North side, south side, west side?"

COOPER: “Yeah, not so much. They are highly concentrated on the west side and the south side. We like folks to think of them as high-incarceration neighborhoods rather then high-crime areas. They’re — thinking about how much we’re spending — they’re really high-incarceration neighborhoods. And that distinction’s important, because more and more we’re finding out — the best research is showing us — that incarceration is not necessarily leading to good safety results."

Cooper says the million-dollar figure doesn’t even account for the entire cost of the criminal justice system. It’s just what the Illinois Department of Corrections spends locking up people from those blocks. The cost of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts, probation and jails are not counted in the figure.

MACKEY: “You talked a little bit earlier about encouraging people to not think of these as high-crime areas but high-incarceration areas. And yet, I’m sure there are going to be people listening who say, ‘Do the crime, do the time.’ Right? These are neighborhoods where there is crime. How do you make that distinction? Can you flesh that out a little bit?"

COOPER: “Sure, yeah. I think it;s an important question. Essentially, we like to think about this as yes, there are high crime rates, for sure. But when you look back ver the last 20 years for example, violent crime peaked in the early '90s and has been falling steadily ever since. The Brennan Center in New York came out with a report recently showing that that decrease in crime, only a very small percentage — maybe 1 percent at best — can be attributed to incarceration. Right? So incarceration is not leading to safety outcomes, is not really responsible for the drop in crime.

"So while there are very real public safety challenges, a lot of that has to do with forms of disadvantage that have been in place for years. Poverty. Disinvestment. A lot of the history of neighborhoods on the west and south side go back to redlining, where these neighborhoods did not accumulate wealth through housing the same way other neighborhoods did, were disinvested in. And because of that, our response has not been to correct those wrongs or invest in ways that would lift these neighborhoods up. It has been in sort of punishing this disadvantage that’s been made over years and years and years of policies.

'Is this the best response to disadvantage? To poverty?'

"So we like to think about — the point of the framing on high-incarceration neighborhoods is really thinking about: Is this the best response to disadvantage? To poverty? This punishment. And is it producing safety outcomes? And we argue that no, it’s not. And is it producing any good development outcomes? Human development or community development? And we argue, again, the answer is no."

MACKEY: “This is almost an either-or. You can spend the money on prisons or you can do …?"

COOPER: “Or you can invest in real human and community development. So I think as a society we’re so ingrained to think — we hear on the news there’s a shooting, there’s violence — and so we only think we have one tool in the toolbox, which is to send more police or to get tougher on crime through sentencing. We don’t really stop to think and measure whether this is actually having a positive effect on crime. And the answer more and more is turning out to be no. So the more we invest in crime and removing people and we think this is a deterrent to crime, it’s actually not. Because people return to the community and have a record now. And are in some ways even more likely to be excluded to the margins, have a harder time finding a job and often turn to selling drugs and things — the only way to make a living.

“So we have this negative cycle where we have crime, an overreactive response through incarceration and then as a result a revolving door from prison to community, which makes the community worse off. The additive to that, kind of the flip side, (is) instead of punishing an removing folks, it’s to invest in programs that work. Evidence-based programs. Things like health, mental health, job training, community and economic development, youth programs. Things that may help people avoid the justice system in the first place. It’s really taking a prevention — or looking at it through a prevention lens or a public health lens — thinking about the ways you can seed positive relations between neighbors, positive community development. That in the long run will produce better safety outcomes, better crime outcomes, as we see it."

The work of Cooper and his collaborators has had some reach. It’s been covered by The Washington Post, The Atlantic’s CityLab, and Chicago magazine. Cooper also presented his findings to the commission the governor appointed to reduce Illinois’ prison population.

One of the problems the commission has been grappling with is that some of the ideas for keeping people out of prison — many of them are supported by research and data — but they could still be politically challenging. One of the things the commissioners will have to sell to the governor, legislature and voters is that reducing the use of prison can actually improve public safety. But Cooper says that only happens under certain conditions.

COOPER: “The idea that we just send less people to prison and that ultimately safety outcomes will improve is not necessarily realistic either, because we haven’t changed the conditions in which — the conditions that led to someone committing an offense in the first place. And that goes back to lack of jobs or public education, health inequities, all these sorts of things that for years and years and years we’ve seen huge disparities. Two cities. The divided city of Chicago. And so we can’t just reduce a few sentences and expect that these neighborhoods will automatically improve themselves. But the good news is that investing in community based programs — collective impact efforts and economic development — is much cheaper than locking people up. And so over time, I think we have a much better potential of seeing that work and pay dividends in communities than just removing people and expecting them to return to the community and magically find jobs, and the community to magically improve economically."

That’s it for this episode, which is number 19. You can listen to past State of the States and subscribe to the podcast at our website, I should also add I recently took a close look at just what it’ll take to really make a dent in Illinois' prison crowding — you can find that story in Illinois Issues, which also at

Thanks for listening. I’m Brian Mackey.

Music: "Channels & Winds” from Passages by Philip Glass.