The True Cost of Incarceration in Baltimore’s Poorest Neighborhoods
TRNN’s Stephen Janis talks to Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Marc Schindler about how Maryland spends millions incarcerating residents of inner city neighborhoods
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN PRODUCER: This is Stephen Janis from The Real News Network.
America’s reputation as a carceral nation is well-established. The United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s entire prison population, while representing just 5 percent of the world’s total population.
But a new study reveals a different perspective on the country’s penchant for imprisonment–the price tag–and not just for the country as a whole, but for specific neighborhoods in Baltimore. And what the study found is not just how much we’re spending to keep people locked up, but how much [of what] we’re spending is concentrated in poor minority neighborhoods.
The numbers are stunning. Maryland is spending $50 million to incarcerate residents of roughly five neighborhoods.
Joining us to discuss the findings is Mark Schindler from the Justice Policy Institute. Mark Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Over the course of his career, Mark has worked on justice system issues in a variety of roles, from public defender in Baltimore City to advocate for juvenile justice agencies and administrators.
Mark, welcome to The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us.
MARC SCHINDLER, EXEC. DIRECTOR, JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE: Thanks for having me.
JANIS: One of the things that I found interesting about the study is just why you decided to look at these neighborhoods and look at incarceration from an entirely different perspective. Could you talk about that little bit?
SCHINDLER: Sure. Well, this is a significant issue for the state of Maryland and for the country as a whole, as you talked about. The amounts that we’re spending to lock people up in our cities and states around the country is extraordinary. In Maryland, we spend nearly $1 billion on the corrections agency–and just in Baltimore City, almost $300 million a year to lock people up.
And so one of the things that we talk about from a policy perspective–and I used to run a corrections agency–is: what are we getting for that investment? Are our communities safer? And, unfortunately, the answer largely is no.
And so what we did when there was some data available here in Baltimore, particularly, was look more closely at the data, particularly where people who are incarcerated live prior to their incarceration and what’s going on in those communities. And are there different ways that we might spend scarce public resources that would get us better outcomes?
JANIS: Now, you found specifically there were five communities where the most was spent. And what you looked at were some of characteristics, some of the outcomes in those committees. What did you find there?
SCHINDLER: So what we found across the cities. So there are about half of Baltimore’s communities, so about 25 of the 50-some odd communities, spend more than $5 million a year on incarceration. And as you pointed out, ten of those communities are spending more than $10 million. And one community in particular is actually spending about $17 million to lock up almost 500 people.
What we saw in common across those communities is that those are communities that are facing a variety of challenges. That includes everything from housing to high levels of substance abuse within those communities, to low education and low earnings in those communities. So we found a range of challenges within those communities.
And what the study really draws people and shows what we need to be asking is what is the link between those things and is spending on incarceration the best way we can spend money to address some of those issues.
JANIS: Now, of course, one of the big issues in criminal justice system is race and the involvement of race in criminal justice and where criminal justice resources are targeted. These neighborhoods, what was the racial composition?
SCHINDLER: So, overwhelmingly the neighborhoods that are sending the most people to prisons in Maryland are overwhelmingly communities of color, particularly African-American. And so you’re absolutely right. It’s virtually impossible to have a responsible discussion about criminal justice policy in this country without talking about the impact of race. And so what we see, whether it’s the juvenile justice system, the adult criminal justice system, is a disparate impact on communities of color, including people of color getting locked up for longer periods for similar types of behavior, as is exhibited in the white community.
JANIS: So why do you think it is that this subject of cost is so often not discussed within the context of criminal justice? I mean, your study is pretty much unique. I mean, there’ve been other studies that have covered this, but not in detail. Why is cost always sort of left out of the conversation?
SCHINDLER: Well, you know, I think it’s complicated, right? And so when we think about systems in government–and, again, I used to run a government agency. It was a juvenile corrections agency. Oftentimes you’re before the council or the state assembly, and you’re siloed into a committee that focuses on your issue. Right? And so, when I would testify about the juvenile justice budget in Washington, D.C., it was before a different set of council members that were talking about housing. Right? That was in a completely separate committee.
These things are related, right? So we know, for example, at the Baltimore City jail, there’s a percentage of people who are there who largely are there because they don’t have housing, right? And so, should we be locking people up essentially because they’re homeless. Right? And so these are issues that are intertwined.
But, unfortunately, the way government works, and sometimes the way the media works, is we don’t have a conversation that brings these issues together. And it is complicated, right? And so we need to make sure that we’re challenging ourselves to prove and say, okay, how exactly are we spending our resources? Where are we spending them? And what are the outcomes we’re getting?
JANIS: Well, that’s a great point you bring up, the efficacy of the criminal justice system. You’re saying that more incarceration doesn’t make us safer. How is that possible? And what aspects of this process make us less safer in your opinion?
SCHINDLER: Sure. There’s little bit of a tipping point here, right? So some level of incarceration clearly does impact public safety. Right? So there are people who are committing very, very dangerous acts, and if they’re incarcerated, they’re not committing those acts, at least on the streets, for the period that they’re incarcerated. But what the students have shown over time–and most recently a major report issued by the Bernard Center for Justice showed that incarceration has a limited impact on public safety. And, in fact, it has diminishing returns the more you get. Right? So, essentially there’s a tipping point.
And there has been research over the years–and I think if we looked at some of these communities in Baltimore, we would see this, in that in fact a high rate of incarceration actually can have a destabilizing impact on a neighborhood. Right? And you think about that, it’s sort of common sense. Right? So here in Baltimore, for example, in these neighborhoods that we’re talking about, we have a disproportionate number of African-American men going to prison. Right? These are men who have sons, who have daughters, who have spouses, who have families. When you’re removing them, right, you may be removing someone who committed a crime, but you’re also removing someone who can be an asset to that community, who most likely was doing some work of some kind, who was caring for a family member. Right? And so when you take a significant portion of those people out of the community, right, that community is stretched even more thin. Right?
And so this destabilizing effect on communities is something that we need to be aware of and look at: what are the other challenges within that community that we can be addressing and be addressing in a more cost-effective way? It’s essentially cheaper to get somebody trained for a job, right, which you can do–for the $37,000 that we pay to lock up an individual for a year in Maryland, you can have five people in a workforce development program. I would argue that if you’re doing a good job and have the right people in that program, it’s a much better investment and a much better use of your tax dollars that just locking up one person.
JANIS: And so I have to ask you to question, because everything you say makes perfectly common sense to me, and yet, even in Annapolis now there is talk of police reform, right? But it’s not going anywhere at the moment. What is the resistance to looking at this in this way, in the way [incompr.] purely economic context? And I’ve kind of asked this question before. And it’s still the more you say, what is preventing us from having a discussion about this, about our incarceration issue?
SCHINDLER: Yeah. I think there’s a number of things that are making this discussion hard, although there’s also some things that are starting to make it a little bit more possible in today’s times. So you mentioned the disproportionate impact on people of color in the criminal justice system. And so we should just call it for what it is, right? Race is a factor, and there is a reluctancy to have that discussion in public forums to acknowledge what is going on in the justice system.
We’re starting to see that in this country–unfortunately, due to tragedies. Right? But we have everyone from the president to the attorney general to leaders in Congress talking about the fact that we lock up too many people in this country not for good law enforcement reasons. So that’s one reason.
The other piece, though, is, quite frankly, we’re spending so much money on this criminal justice system now that we can no longer afford to ignore this conversation. Right? And so you have now fiscal conservatives coming to the table to talk about these issues, because essentially they’ve taken a hard look at this and they said, you know, we’re locking up two-thirds of the people in this country for nonviolent offenses and we’re spending extraordinarily amounts of money. So they’re starting to ask, can we do something differently? So that’s created some opportunity to have a discussion.
There’s also a part of the conservative movement that is libertarian. Right? And they’re concerned about more intrusive government. Right? And so government, through our corrections system, has gotten extraordinarily big. Right? And so it’s very expensive, it’s intrusive, and it’s not fair.
So I think a combination of those things–combined with unfortunate tragedies, quite frankly–is at least providing some opening for this discussion. Whether that will actually result in real reform is another question.
JANIS: Well, you bring up a good point. It’s an industry, too, right? I mean, what you’re talking about the criminal justice system–I’ve read somewhere it’s around $80 billion a year, employs thousands of people. How much does that factor into keeping that discussion on a limited plain?
SCHINDLER: Oh, there’s no question about it. It is a criminal-industrial complex, right? And so there are literally billions of dollars that are at stake. And there are private for-profit prison companies. There are companies that make the food that are served in prisons, that build prisons. And so this is an extraordinarily profitable industry and one that takes up a piece of our economy. So that does make this in some ways more challenging. And, if you will, there are special interests who have a vested interest in the status quo.
But I think we’re starting to see some pushback on that and some realization that this is not getting the outcomes that we’re looking for.
We also just can’t ignore the fact that we are at an all-time record low for crime in this country. That’s not necessarily because of incarceration. But I think that’s also giving us an opportunity to have a discussion where there’s not as much fear within the general public, because crime is relatively low right now.
JANIS: Moving forward, what do you think needs to happen, and what do you think will come with this report? Are you planning on doing any more research? Or moving forward, what will happen?
SCHINDLER: Sure. You know, our hope–and I think we’re starting to see this happen–is that people will start asking tougher questions in terms of how we are spending our scarce public dollars.
One of the things that we point to in the report–and I think there’s some discussion going on here in Maryland and in other places–is let’s really have a cost-benefit analysis when we’re talking about public policy.
So a place that is actually doing this quite well is in Washington state. Some years ago they created the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. And they are charged with actually doing a cost-benefit analysis in terms of looking at the likely outcomes for different changes in law and policy. There’s no reason that Maryland and other states shouldn’t be doing the same thing. So responsible elected officials should be asking, if we pass this law, or if we leave this long sentencing law in effect, what are we getting from that, from a cost-benefit analysis as it relates to public safety?
And so our hope is that people start to ask those questions, ’cause I think when those questions start to get asked and they start to see the answers, that’s a way to shift this discussion and move it forward more effectively.
JANIS: Well, thank you, Mark Schindler, for joining us and talking to us about this. I hope to have you back so we can discuss this, ’cause I think this is an issue that needs to be discussed.
SCHINDLER: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate the opportunity. I look forward to talking with you again.
My name is Stephen Janis, and I’m reporting for The Real News network. Thank you.
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