While we are focused on the budget cuts taking place across the city and state, there’s still one area where spending is actually increasing. In fact, Illinois has spent $2.4 million on one single block in the Austin community. That money did not go to infrastructure improvements, local schools or after-school programs; instead, the $2.4 million is money the state spent on jailing residents of that one block — mainly for minor drug offenses.
Between 2005 and 2009, Illinois spent almost twice as much on incarcerating people from Austin ($550 million) as it did on jailing people from any other neighborhood. In fact, the state committed $1.4 billion for this year alone to the Department of Corrections, despite having $8 billion worth of unpaid bills and no budget for fiscal year 2016.
While resources for economic development and services seem to be drying up, spending on incarceration has actually increased in recent years according to a study called “Million Dollar Blocks” launched by the Chicago Justice Project and the School of Social Inclusion at Adler University. The study looks at more than 300,000 criminal records showing what developers called a “conservative estimate” of how much the Illinois Department of Corrections spent on people from each block and neighborhood.
So what do we do with this troubling information? How do we address the issue of mass incarceration and exorbitant spending on punitive measures that have not been proven to decrease crime nor rehabilitate offenders?
First, we must address the blocks themselves. These are our million dollar blocks. For those of us who live in these neighborhoods, we must be willing to stand up to the drug dealers on our corners and create an environment that is not conducive to the sale and purchase of drugs.
On my own block in East Garfield Park, with vigilant neighbors and cooperative landlords, we were able to disperse individuals who attempted to sell drugs on our corner. We did this by approaching the individuals and treating them humanely. But we also made sure law enforcement was notified in case the individuals attempted to return. Also, we’re well aware that there is no substitute for strong family units, mentoring and institutions that impart solid values in young people. Our churches, social service agencies and local families must do their part.
Now, for the policy reforms. Policy reforms must include changes to the criminal justice system, but they must also include changes to public policy that create pathways for productive participation in society. The billions of dollars spent on ineffective punitive measures includes billions that could also be invested into a new generation of individuals who have not yet interacted with the criminal justice system — namely, access to early childhood education and quality schools. Even within those schools, a push for the expansion of restorative justice practices means emphasizing character development, teaching conflict resolution skills and establishing some accountability within the community. These are all preferable to the ‘profile, discipline, and jail’ strategy currently in place and ensures that individuals still have a chance to grow, even if they make mistakes along the way, as most young people do.
I also believe an empowerment model of development that focuses on economic revitalization can address some of the systemic challenges that feed into mass incarceration. Revising and expanding vocational education programs in Chicago Public Schools means that young people have options based upon skills that make them employable in today’s economy; particularly in trades such as advanced manufacturing, electrical, information technology and health care. When they learn the trade, they become employable, which gives them an alternative to illicit activity that can lead to arrest. Their trade skills can also lead them to start a business (instead of working for hire-ups in the drug game and sometimes earning less than minimum wage).
So, expanding entrepreneurship opportunities for youth and adults must be part of the empowerment model. Ownership is the key to wealth-building and expanding small businesses means increased local hiring for those businesses in the neighborhood and, as a result, spurring local development and revitalizing communities. This is also key for those who have been incarcerated. Because of their criminal records, these individuals often struggle to find work. By establishing pathways to business ownership, they can work for themselves and hire others who may have records — putting both employer and employed on the path to contributing productively to the local economy.
We’ll save money in the long-term by putting these long-term economic imperatives in place. But not only will we save money, we’ll begin to revitalize our communities. Hopefully, the $2.4 million the state currently spends on incarcerating that one block in Austin can, at some point, turn into $240 million of economic growth.