Block by Block


The state of Kansas spent $5 million incarcerating the residents of zip code 67214 in 2008.

The newly created National Justice Atlas hopes to show that when it comes to criminal justice, sometimes a zip code can make all the difference.

Less than three percent of the residents of Wichita, Kansas live in the 67214 zip code, but 10 percent of Wichitans sent to prison in 2008 call this area home. And while nearly 50 percent of these residents lived on $25,000 or less, the state spent more than $5 million dollars that year to keep the people from zip code 67214 behind bars .

Revealing statistics, yes, but numbers like this don't exactly command political or social attention these days–better to draw a picture.

“With a map, people immediately understand what is going on,” said Eric Cadora, director of the Justice Mapping Center, the organization behind the new National Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections. “A researcher, a practitioner and a legislator can all understand the same thing at the same time.”

Released on Wednesday, the Atlas offers policy makers, academics, journalists and the public an online, interactive tool to help them analyze and map complicated statistics on criminal justice from 22 states. The 2008 data includes incarceration rates, parole numbers and the cost of imprisonment for jurisdictions from Portland, Oregon to Buffalo, New York.

As he was compiling the project, Cadora, noticed that nearly every city in the 22 states has zip codes that, like Wichita's 67214, are home to vastly higher rates of prisoners, parolees, and thus correctional dollars.

“It was ubiquitous,” Cadora told The Crime Report. “But you can't see it until you get down to the county or city, to the census tract level.”

The Atlas marks a jump in scale and scope for the Justice Mapping Center, which has been using computer mapping and graphics to help draw a picture of patterns in criminal justice, including patterns of parolees in New Haven and “million dollar block” in New York City . Unlike previous projects that offered a snapshot of one city or issue, the new Atlas spans the U.S., and the map will be updated annually. Cadora hopes to add ten to 15 more states next year, and to include data on jails and other justice issues.

While some of the data from participating states and cities was previously available– either publicly or by special request–the Atlas makes it easily accessible to people around the country. Those funding the new Atlas, including the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and Pew, hope that policy makers and grassroots organizations will use the tools and graphics to advocate for reform at the fiscal and policy levels.

At an online “webinar” on Wednesday, Cadora walked a small group of journalists and policymakers through the Atlas's interface. Starting with a U.S. map, Cadora drilled down to look at rates of imprisonment, correctional spending, community re-entry and parole data from 2008 by zip code and census tract.

Some trends emerged: inmates often return to communities with a large percentage of residents living below the poverty line, and states regularly spend millions of dollars to incarcerate people from poor and underemployed neighborhoods. Details vary, but nearly every area offers something of note. In Lakeland, Florida, a high concentration of men being released from prison–25 per 1,000–was coupled a rate of single parent households of over 30 percent.

“The maps help policy makers set priorities,” said Adam Gelb, the director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States, a partner on the project. “There are a lot of inefficiencies that can be squeezed out of systems.”

As the economy has faltered, jurisdictions around the country have struggled to balance problems of public safety with the reality of dwindling resources. After years of mass incarceration, states must address the ballooning costs of prison and parole. The Atlas maps show how certain neighborhoods have, often unintentionally, become magnets for state resources.

“States were not going to come up with new dollars” for criminal justice, said Cadora. But he hopes that with the help of the map they can make better use of the dollars that are already there.

Lisa Riordan Seville is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY.

Image from the Justice Atlas of Sentencing and Corrections.

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