MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. And now to the NPR Cities Project.
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CORNISH: There's a lot of talk these days about how cities can use data to make better decisions and better communities. We're going to look today at one example of that and why turning data into action can be complicated. In this particular example, the goal is to break the cycle of crime and violence that plagues certain neighborhoods. And our story begins with an idea known as Million Dollar Block.
Eric Cadora is going to explain that idea for us. He's on the street in Brooklyn, New York, where he directs the Justice Mapping Center. Eric, thanks for joining us.
ERIC CADORA: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: So start by telling us what the heck a Million Dollar Block is.
CADORA: Yeah. Well, a Million Dollar Block was a term we came up with when we were looking closely not at crime rates, which a lot of people had been studying, but rather at incarceration rates for places. So what we did was mapped where people lived who were going in and out of prison and jail every year, and started to look at that data on a very local level. And then we were tallying up the costs of that imprisonment for each block in Brooklyn.
And what we found were these million-dollar blocks, places for which the state and city of New York were spending more than a million dollars a year to send people to prison and jail each year, for, on average, between two and three years.
CORNISH: So you're on the street in Brooklyn right now. Tell us about the block you're on and how it applies to your work.
CADORA: Yeah, we're in a block in Brownsville, Brooklyn and we're outside a new neighborhood-based probation office. And just behind us is a whole group of blocks for which the state and city are spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate people.
CORNISH: And, Eric, you've actually mapped this area several times. I mean, give us an example of exactly what kind of information the maps give you, about the area right where you are.
CADORA: Well, let me tell you, Audie, what's different about what we did is that no one had ever actually sat down and gotten the home street address of everyone going into prison and jail, as well as all sort of the background information about their age and their employment status, et cetera. And when you have that data, it tells you a lot about what's going on, on the block.
And when we look at the million-dollar blocks that we mapped almost a decade ago, it's a highly concentrated group of public housing and smaller apartment housing, all grouped together in a very concentrated manner; each of which we're spending more than a million dollars a year for.
But today, when we look around and we see those blocks, things have changed quite a bit. There has been a real investment by the city and the state, and particularly the Department of Probation, to engage with local organizations around the community and strengthen what they're doing. And you can see that in a lot of activities are going on around me.
CORNISH: You talked about what cities can do with this information but can you get more specific? 'Cause with the map, they now have very detailed, precise statistics on something which most people who may live in such a neighborhood know pretty intuitively.
CADORA: Yes, they do. And in fact, in all honesty, what we mapped was not a big surprise to people. But when you actually gather the real data and the real numbers and you put them on maps, they become immediately understandable to people who didn't see it, like legislators, city council people, researchers.
They become almost urban planners and start to ask questions like, oh, well, 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, rather than come in blind with some kind of sort of giant service center that doesn't really link with what's already going on in those neighborhoods?
CORNISH: And it's almost the flip-side of the way police use the data, right now. There's a big push of, in terms of policing, use data to find hotspots of criminal activity.
CADORA: That's exactly right. So what we were trying to suggest was instead of law enforcement tactics that crime mapping helps, incarceration mapping helps you think about the socio-economic dimensions that are a key to making a difference from here out.
CORNISH: Eric, at what point did your work make the leap from the computer lab and your hard drive to policymakers?
CADORA: It was very soon after. Within a year, we were all over the country, from Connecticut to Kansas, et cetera. I'll tell you, Audie, one of the things we noticed right away when legislators and others started to see this, was they talked about this issue differently. Instead of getting stuck in the being soft, get tough paradox, they started to talk about neighborhoods.
So in Connecticut, where it was one of the first places outside of New York we worked, legislators started to talk there about the Hill neighborhood and why were we spending $6 million a year to remove and return a whole range of people for technical violations when we could be investing some of those dollars in the social and economic well-being of those places.
CORNISH: And, Eric, we're actually going to turn to New Haven, Connecticut, where people, as you said, are discussing this - policymakers are discussing this.
So, Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center in Brooklyn, thanks so much for explaining it to us.
CADORA: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: And standing by in New Haven, Connecticut now is Diane Orson of member station WNPR. Hi there, Diane.
DIANE ORSON, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: Now, the program in Connecticut, it's called the Prison Reentry Initiative. Explain it and how it is related to this mapping.
ORSON: Well, as Eric said, the maps lead to a conversations here among state reps and several programs came out of those conversations that were inspired by the maps, and the New Haven Prison Reentry Initiative was one of them. It's an office here that helps ex-offenders make that transition back home from prison. About 100 people are released from prison to New Haven each month.
CORNISH: And I take it the maps guide - essentially are a guide to target resources?
ORSON: Right. Once people come back to New Haven from prison, they go back to live in these communities that were identified on the maps. And the Reentry Initiative targets those folks for services. They'll go out, for example, to police sub-stations right in the neighborhoods and meet with offenders.
We're going to visit two of the neighborhoods - Dixwell and Newhallville. These are lower income, high crime areas, predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
CORNISH: And people talk about reentry work, but what exactly does that term mean?
ORSON: It's back-end work, not so much keeping people out of incarceration in the first place, as helping people coming out of prison to build stable lives for themselves, so they won't go back. And there's all kinds of programs; transitional housing, job training. The initiative also works with employers here in New Haven to make it easier for ex-cons to find jobs.
Actually, I'm standing right outside Police Department headquarters in the Hill neighborhood, one of the communities identified on the maps. Earlier this summer, I went inside. It was a day when people just out of prison were meeting with probation and parole.
Eric Rey, who coordinates the Prison Reentry Initiative, was also there to talk with offenders about services available in their neighborhoods.
ERIC REY: So, today is a meet-and-greet. And folks who are recently released from incarceration come here, get some resources that they can take advantage of in the community as they're making their transition.
MATTHEW MERCED: Probation or parole?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Parole.
MERCED: Just sign in here. Your name, your inmate number and who your parole officer is.
ORSON: Matthew Merced is a New Haven detective. He says police want offenders to know that they're here to help.
MERCED: You know, there's such a revolving door of people coming in and out, in and out. It shows a unified front that we do care about where you go down the road.
ORSON: From the place where offenders first connect with services, I head out to see one of those programs in action. It's in one of the communities highlighted on the maps, Dixwell.
DAN JUSINO: How are you?
ORSON: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Dan Jusino runs a job-training program called Emerge Connecticut.
JUSINO: Emerge Connecticut is a transitional work program for former offenders who recently came home, recently being defined as six months or less.
ORSON: Ex-offenders get up to six months of paid on-the-job training in construction. But they also have to agree to attend literacy classes and personal development support groups.
JUSINO: They've just come out of what we call the yard, which is prison, you know, where there's a certain culture and behavior that they've mastered to survive. And now, we got to really re-socialize them, but that takes work.
ORSON: Jusino says personal development is just as important as job training, if ex-cons are going to make a successful transition back to society.
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ORSON: Today, a handful of men are cleaning out a three-story home, so we go up to the 3rd floor.
TYWAN HARRIS: My name is Tywan Harris.
ORSON: What are you doing here right now?
HARRIS: Right now, we're excavating. We work as a team.
ORSON: For you personally, has this been a good program?
HARRIS: Yes, it has because I get the personal development and I have a place to go in the daytime.
BERNARD GOUTIER: My name is Bernard Goutier, 25. I was only in there this past time for nine months.
ORSON: Have you been in there more than once?
GOUTIER: Yes, twice. First time was gun possession. The second time was possession of marijuana. I had to learn how to, you know, not put myself first, you know, but think about everyone around me, you know. Because they always say when you do prison time, you're not the only one doing it, your family does it with you.
ORSON: As we head back outside, Jusino says he thinks the program is working. 73 people have gone through so far.
DAN JUSTINO: Of those 73, we've only had three guys rearrested on new charges and four guys arrested on technicalities because there wasn't the supervision. But that's unheard of. You know, I know it's only a sample number, but, you know, what most of the programs don't realize, Diane, is they treat these guys like a job is the answer. A job is part of the solution.
ORSON: This program wouldn't exist without federal and state grants and private funding. Emerge also gets lots of help from the New Haven community. Yale University, for example, just down the road, donated the vehicles they use. Most of the guys working here today live nearby. Dixwell is a community that's seen a constant churn of people arrested, incarcerated and coming back, as does the Newhallville neighborhood a few streets away. This community has had a lot of violent crime. Here's where I met Martha Miller Conyers. She has two sons in prison and is skeptical that after-prison programs can do enough. She thinks prison itself needs to do a better job preparing inmates to return to society as productive citizens.
MARTHA MILLER CONYERS: When the young mens come of jail sometime they just walk in the street. So they never, never paid for what they did. Even if they go to jail, they come back. They don't pay for it.
ORSON: And because so many people are coming out unprepared, she says the neighborhood is declining.
CONYERS: The area just went down, down, down. And it's still going down. We pay taxes and, you know, our communities just, I mean, you have to really ride through here to really see what I'm talking about.
ORSON: While Martha Conyers says she hasn't seen the benefit of reentry programs yet, supporters say it will take time. It's still too early to measure the results. This focus on reentry is just a few years old and most recidivism studies are a lot older than that. Right now, there are hundreds of re-entry programs underway in cities across the country. And people are starting to use tools like mapping as a way to understand how incarceration and reentry affect communities. They're an effective way, they say, to better target resources toward neighborhoods like this one, and alternately, build safer cities. At the corner of Dixwell and Argyle in New Haven, Diane Orson for the NPR Cities Project.
BLOCK: You can see some of the maps from the Justice Mapping Center and hear more stories about urban life in the 21st century at npr.org/nprcities. And you can follow the project on Twitter - @nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.