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The center, which started as a nonprofit and became affiliated with the School of Criminal Justice about a year ago, maps prison data to identify high-incarceration neighborhoods and uses the patterns as persuasion for policy change. For example, its Million Dollar Blocks campaign identifies individual city blocks in which the number of incarcerated residents costs more than $1 million annually. Recently, the Ford Foundation awarded the center a $150,000 grant to further its work. Here, director Eric Cadora discusses the center’s key findings and their implications.

The center has shown that most of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners are concentrated in only a few neighborhoods in most major cities. Why is this significant?
Traditionally, most of the crime conversation has been about hot-spot policing. But until we did the math, there was little data on where the incarcerated live. Our work has refocused the whole question of public safety around communities and a search for new solutions.

What do these neighborhoods have in common?
They have rich cultural histories but are racially segregated, mostly African-American and Latino, and have experienced a great disinvestment in terms of schools, jobs, and health care. Our response to weakened civil institutions has been to beef up the criminal justice presence. It doesn’t work. In fact, locally concentrated incarceration reaches a tipping point and eventually undermines the networks that keep people safe.

America is the No. 1 incarcerator in the world. How effective has the center been in getting to communities before they reach the tipping point?
We have mapped juvenile justice data in combination with other youth indicator data to try to spot neighborhoods where youth are ‘disconnected’ (not in school, not working, and have no high school degree) and the criminal justice system is growing. But that’s a tall order; most of our energies are focused on slowing the existing incarceration juggernaut in the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

How are communities using the data?
States, not communities, pay for the prison system, which stymies local innovation and bends incentives toward incarceration. Million Dollar Blocks dramatizes the tradeoffs in spending between prison and community investment, which has spurred new thinking about investing these dollars in more productive local solutions.

The center was founded in 2006 and at the end of 2012 formed a partnership with Rutgers. What led to this decision?
We want to expand our capacity by involving research faculty and Ph.D. students to create policy papers, and Rutgers is ideal because it’s strong in spatial analysis and innovative thinking.

What’s the next step toward creating a greater system of justice?
To date, we have partnerships with 23 states. Our goal is to expand to 50. We want to put our data and reports in the hands of ambassadors who can spread the message city by city across the country, where it can lead to comprehensive change.

Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Nick Romanenko.

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