CARCERAL RESOURCE INDEX
If “money talks,” then budgets tell a story about a community’s investment priorities. At a time of renewed interest in budget priorities, there is a need for a holistic approach that moves beyond a myopic focus on policing. Law enforcement functions as the primary, but not the only gateway into an expansive system of punishment and control that includes prosecutors, courts, jails/prisons, community supervision, and other elements.
The Carceral Resource Index (CRI) is designed to measure a government’s fiscal commitment to carceral systems. This statistical coefficient contrasts investments in systems of punishment and control relative to spending on health and supportive services that prevent criminal justice involvement. As inputs, CRI captures government budgetary outlays in three categories: 1. Carceral (police, courts, prosecutors, corrections, community supervision); 2. Health (health and human services, public health, parks and recreation); and 3. Social Support (housing assistance, employment assistance, civic and community engagement, arts and culture).
The CRI offers values ranging from -1 to 1. A CRI coefficient of -1 represents a jurisdiction’s fiscal prioritization of carceral systems to the exclusion of health and support, while 1 represents fiscal prioritization of health and support systems to the exclusion of carceral expenditures. Actual composition of budget outlays in each CRI category will vary by local government design. Expenditures that do not fall squarely into these three categories are excluded.
This online dashboard presents the Crude version of the CRI, which does not consider complex accounting techniques and overlapping resource flows that under-estimate the true size of budgetary outlays in any one category (methodology detailed here). This complexity will figure into Phase 2 of the project. Nonetheless, the Crude version of the CRI provides a measure of the jurisdictions’ relative budgetary priorities that can be used to systematically track progress overtime and facilitate cross-site comparisons.
Our initial analysis of the crude budget data yielded a nationwide median CRI of -0.27, which suggests that American cities in our sample spent significantly more on carceral systems than on health and social supports, combined.
In the U.S., there has been a long-held notion that public safety is contingent on punishment and incapacitation of bad actors. Assumptions about the ability of carceral measures to deter crime have driven ever-harsher criminal laws, aggressive enforcement practices, lengthy prison sentences, and cavalier financial investments. When these assumptions have been empirically scrutinized, however, carceral systems have generally failed to operationalize prevention and deterrence through severity, while generating cascades of health and other harms. Aggressive enforcement of drug laws has been shown to increase violent crime. It has also fuelled HIV, overdose, and other health harms among people who use drugs. Conversely, when police officers collectively respond to civil rights investigations with work slowdowns and temporarily “de-police,” crime, violent or otherwise, does not increase.
On the other hand, investing in public health, community development, and a range of other prevention measures has been shown to reduce contact with the criminal legal system. Such investments include quality healthcare and public space access, employment and housing assistance programs, access to substance use treatment, and community engagement programs. Moreover, decades of evidence documents the health harms caused by policing and other carceral systems, especially as they relate to homelessness, substance use, and other community challenges.
Our research aims to document how spending on carceral systems (police, corrections, and courts) relates to investments in structures and services that can obviate the need for carceral spending. Investment in effective public health and non-punitive solutions that strengthen communities can reduce contact between the public and police and other elements of carceral systems.
This project is a systematic analysis of local budgeting to track the disparity in investment in public health and supportive services in favor of carceral systems. Our initial focus is on the 22 US metropolitan areas for the year 2020. Financial expenditures are organized into three categories:
Carceral -- police, sheriffs, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, jails, and community supervision
Health -- health and human services, public health, and parks and recreation
Social Support -- housing assistance, employment assistance, civic and community engagement, and arts and culture.
To construct these categories, we systematically applied inclusion and exclusion criteria based on a review of the research literature on risk and protective factors of criminal justice involvement (see below). Note that the composition of resources captured by CRI will vary by local government design (ex. courts in Chicago fall under Cook County and therefore are funded by Cook County).
The CRI represents a composite measure of parity between carceral outlays and investments in health and social support systems. This coefficient can be used to compare jurisdictions, track the expenditures of a single jurisdiction over time, and as a novel variable in the epidemiological modeling of structural determinants of health.
Phase 1 is generating an unadjusted version of the Index: CRI-Crude. During the initial Phase 1 analysis, county, state, and federal level funding to each municipality is not included (with the exception of Nassau-Suffolk, two adjoining counties we treat as a single municipality). The CRI provides a set of consistent benchmarks for analysis and reform efforts at the municipal level. However, CRI-Crude affords a limited picture of resource flows in each municipality. Phase 2 (described below) will offer an adjusted, fuller understanding of these budget flows.
At a time of renewed interest in budget priorities, there is a need for a holistic approach that moves beyond a myopic focus on policing. Law enforcement functions as the primary, but not the only gateway into an expansive system of punishment and control that includes prosecutors, courts, jails/prisons, community supervision, and other elements.
The following departments and agencies comprise the Carceral spending category:
Prosecutors and public defense*
Probation and community supervision
*While public defenders offices and court-appointed attorneys serve a vital role for people accused of all manner of crimes, we included such spending in the Carceral category because it is a direct outcome of carceral investments.
Health and Human Services, Public Health Departments
We included these departments because a person’s health and access to health care are associated with a reduced likelihood of criminal justice involvement. State Medicaid expansion led to overall improved access to care among older adults and to increased self-reported health. Justice-involved individuals face high uninsurance rates; Medicaid-expansion under the Affordable Care Act in 2014 led to a 9.7 percent increase in the number of justice-involved individuals who were insured. Some of the strongest evidence for investment in public health for crime prevention and deterrence is through substance use treatment, specifically with medication treatment in the form of methadone and buprenorphine (Bukten et. al, 2012, Holloway et. al, 2006, Wen et. al, 2014, Evans et. al, 2019).
Public Spaces, Parks & Recreation
We included open spaces and parks because they are essential to community gathering. One study found that individuals living near vacant lots reported reduced perceptions of crime and concerns for safety after vacant spaces were reclaimed. They also reported significantly increased use of outdoor spaces for relaxing and socializing. Palaces for the People, by Eric Klinenberg (Crown, 2018), provides an extended argument for the ways in which access to public space and investments in social infrastructure promote a community’s health and resilience.
Housing, Neighborhood Development
We included housing because it is directly related to criminal justice outcomes, especially in cities with a high population of unhoused people who regularly interface with local police. Assisting persons experiencing homelessness through public health program intervention may result in reduced crime rates. The following studies show an association between experiencing homelessness and the likelihood to commit crime. New York University researchers interviewed 207 persons experiencing homelessness and mental illness nine times over four years. The research demonstrated that psychological symptom severity and homelessness could predict an increase in a community’s non-violent crime. Lastly, a 2012 study found a positive, yet moderate correlation (r=0.34) between the percentage of a lifetime spent homeless and the number of times a person had been arrested.
We included departments and agencies that fund employment opportunities because stable jobs and secure financial well-being are associated with less crime. A study conducted in 2013 found a 33 percent drop in violent crime among previously incarcerated youth one year after their participation in a Chicago summer job program. Unemployment had a positive and significant impact on property crimes (burglary, car theft, bike theft ) based on data from Sweden.
We included departments related to community engagement because the empirical literature illustrates their effectiveness in preventing crime through community involvement (37 studies listed here). One study estimated that community engagement in the form of local non-profits has the potential to reduce the murder rate by 9%, violent crime rate by 6%, and property crime rate by 4% (for every 10 non-profits that address crime and community engagement in cities with 100,000 residents).
Arts and Culture
We included Arts and Culture departments because qualitative studies have shown engagement in the arts can promote active citizenship, self-esteem, and strengthen community ties. Some research has also shown that arts education can assist in developing certain social, emotional, and cognitive skills that are important factors for crime prevention. While these are more individual-level factors, the Urban Institute believes there is potential to understand the community-level impact of the arts. A 2004 RAND corporation report indicates that art can build social capital and collective action as a community. A 2019 study found that arts education reduced school disciplinary infractions by 3.6%.
Chief Medical Examiners
We excluded the offices of Chief Medical Examiners because their roles often involve both non-crime related deaths and working police investigators on potentially crime-related deaths. We do note, however, that there are egregious cases of misconduct that involve coroners and medical examiners providing a narrative favorable to police that runs contrary to medical science. In some counties, the sheriff is also the coroner.
Child and Family Services
We excluded Child and Family Services departments because, in addition to the human services they provide, they are also often carcerally-related with Child Protective Services (CPS) divisions and programs supporting juvenile detention initiatives. In theory, child welfare and family protection services may assist in preventing police contact. In execution, however, child and family services are widely criticized for service modalities with carceral and racist foundations, including War on Drugs policies used to separate families and route children into foster care.
We excluded education in the CRI-Crude because the relationship between education and carceral systems is blurred by the use of substantial portions of education dollars in many jurisdictions to support carceral expenditures, including school “resource officers.” Given the prominence of the school-to-prison pipeline, we are omitting education from the computation of the index until we are better able to articulate its complex, long term relationship with public safety during Phase 2 of the project.
Broadly, educational attainment can be inversely associated with the likelihood of a person’s criminal justice involvement. In addition to concerns about schools’ carceral function, we excluded education department spending in part because this association unfolds over many years and under the influence of several confounding variables. Research does show that investments resulting in smaller class sizes have positive impacts on academic performance, as do improvements in teacher quality, especially at the lower grade levels and for economically disadvantaged students. How such interventions go on to promote public safety by reducing the criminal justice involvement of better-educated students is a question for further research.
While Public Works (e.g. water sanitization, sewage, waste disposal) is vital for human health, we also excluded it from our analysis due to its indirect relation to criminal justice outcomes.
Each jurisdiction’s budget was accessed through its web portal and downloaded for analysis. The budget document was analyzed by two researchers independently, who parsed department-level line items into four categories based on the above criteria: carceral, health, supportive services, and other. The “other” category was excluded from the analysis. In rare instances that discrepancies in redundant coding existed, they were analyzed until convergence was reached.
Literature Review: Public health interventions and crime rate
To understand the effect of public health-based interventions on crime, we reviewed research assessing this causal relationship across major public health sectors including healthcare access, housing, employment, community engagement, parks and open spaces, and substance-use treatment. These research studies were compiled by searching for key terms, such as, “public health interventions and crime rates” in Northeastern University Library’s Scholar OneSearch tool and the Google Scholar search tool. Emphasis was given to research studies produced within the last two decades that were published in peer-reviewed journals. We compiled a total of 20 research studies that demonstrate a positive correlation between public health intervention in a community and reduced crime rates.
There is more to government budgets than meets the eye. Complex organizational and jurisdictional structures can obscure the real magnitude of outlays in specific spending categories. Carceral funding comes from many sources at the local, county, state, and federal levels. A variety of accounting techniques further obscure transparency. For instance, some municipalities do not list police capital expenditures as a line item linked to their police departments. This is why the creation of the CRI will proceed in two phases.
Phase 1 is generating an unadjusted version of the Index: CRI-Crude. This version of the CRI captures publicly-available budget figures for a selected sample of U.S. municipalities. In analyzing municipal budgets, the Phase 1 process categorizes investment priorities based solely on the department’s name, without detailed scrutiny as to how the entity chooses to spend allocated funds. By focusing on the municipal purse and taking the budget at face value, it also does not attempt to capture jurisdictional complexity presented with possible additional investments by county, state, and federal entities in the same jurisdiction. As discussed above, some government departments that span both supportive and carceral functions but cannot be clearly categorized, such as education and child welfare agencies, were excluded. Phase 1 also does not address the role of municipal bonds (e.g. police brutality bonds), other financial instruments, or pension obligations. All of these factors can substantially alter the jurisdiction’s CRI value. Although CRI-Crude provides a limited view, it nonetheless functions as a systematic measure of the stated budgetary priorities that can be used to track progress over time and compare selected jurisdictions.
Phase 2 of the project will involve a deeper analysis of municipal budgets, programming within departments that span both supportive and carceral functions, complex accounting, and intergovernmental funding flows. Phase 2 will accordingly generate CRI-Adjusted values integrating this additional complexity.
Arts & Culture
Substance Use Treatment
*CPTED seems to be the prevailing theoretical framework for using a public health/upstream approach to addressing crime reduction, i.e thinking through the built, social and physical environments as areas to focus on investment to reduce crimes