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National Municipal Budget Analysis

Carceral Resource Index (CRI)

Identifying Budgetary Priorities

We are in the midst of a nationwide debate rethinking how to achieve public safety and also promote public health, equity, and justice. If “money talks,” then budgets tell a story about a community’s priorities.To document how spending on carceral systems relates to investments in services that prevent or diminish the need for incarceration, we have completed a systematic analysis of local, city-level budgeting across American cities to document the investment disparity between carceral systems and non-punitive, supportive services.

 

The result is the Carceral Resource Index (CRI), a novel composite measure comparing municipal expenditures on health and social support services versus carceral systems. The CRI is intended to be a tool to help inform this long overdue nationwide debate.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. 

Carceral Systems Versus Supports

Carceral systems -- encompassing all institutions of law enforcement, prosecution, courts, incarceration, and supervision -- have a declared aim of achieving “prevention through deterrence.” In the belief that public safety is predicated on punishment and incarceration, enforcement has become more aggressive, prison sentences are longer, and criminal laws are harsher, all at enormous expense to the taxpayer. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world (see Figure 1). 

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Figure 1

Adapted from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics & The Sentencing Project

Unfortunately, increasing the severity of punishment has not been found to deter crime, and rates of incarceration have no effect on rates of substance use in a state (see Figure 2). On the contrary, aggressive drug law enforcement has been shown to increase the incidence of violent crime, HIV, overdose and other health harms, while prisons themselves may be criminogenic as well. 

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Figure 2

Courtesy of PEW Charitable Trusts

On the other hand, supportive policy measures such as employment and housing assistance programs, access to healthcare and public space, substance use treatment, and community engagement have been shown to reduce the probability of coming into contact with the criminal legal system. 

A Budget is Worth a Thousand Words

At a time of renewed interest in budget priorities, there is a need for a holistic approach that moves beyond a singular focus on policing.Our research aims to document how spending on carceral systems relates to investments in services that prevent or diminish the need for incarceration. We have completed a systematic analysis of local, city-level budgeting across American cities to document the investment disparity between carceral systems and non-punitive, supportive services.

During our analysis, each city’s budget was obtained through the city’s budget office website. The budget document was analyzed by two researchers who independently organized department and sub-department expenditures consistent with the established exclusion and inclusion criteria.

 
Our Tool: The Carceral Resource Index (CRI)

The CRI is a composite measure of the contrast between municipal expenditures on health and social support versus carceral systems. It answers the question, “What does the jurisdiction prioritize in their budget: support services (known to prevent the need for criminal legal system intervention) – or surveillance and punishment?”

Figure 3

The higher the CRI value, the more supportive; the lower the CRI value, the more carceral.

Note: not all cities in our sample are present on the above graph (n=28)

See Full Tableau Public Link Here: CRI by City (2017-2020)

What is a CRI Value?

The CRI value ranges between -1 and 1. (see Figure 3) The higher the number, the more prioritization of health and support systems with a lower share of carceral expenditures. 

A value of -1 would represent a jurisdiction’s fiscal prioritization of carceral systems to the exclusion of any health and support services. Meanwhile, a value of 1 would indicate total investment in health and support services to the exclusion of carceral systems. All jurisdictions fall somewhere in between these extremes. 

Each city’s budget was obtained through the city’s budget office website. The budget document was analyzed by two researchers who independently organized department and sub-department expenditures consistent with the established exclusion and inclusion criteria (see Additional Resources for further clarification regarding these criteria). 

The current CRI calculation is unadjusted or crude, meaning that it does not consider: 

  • External financial resources from the federal, state, or county levels (e.g. federal block grants)

  • Complex accounting techniques

  • Actual spending, but rather, adopted budget values

  • Departments that span both supportive and carceral functions (ex. education and child welfare agencies)

  • Municipal bonds (e.g. police brutality bonds) or litigation payments (e.g. wrongful death settlements)

  • Pension obligations

The crude CRI accordingly does not present a complete picture of budgetary outlays in any given category in any given municipality. Indeed, for many of these jurisdictions, carceral spending and functions beyond municipal police exist entirely at the county and state levels. Future phases of the project will address this complexity. Even so, the CRI can be used to compare jurisdictions, to track the expenditures of a single jurisdiction over time, or as a novel variable in the epidemiological modeling of the structural determinants of health.​ 

How is the CRI Calculated?

Through public information we compiled a list of each municipality’s relevant expenditures. The expenditures are broadly placed into one of three buckets, each made up of several categories: 

  • Carceral: police, sheriffs, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, jails, and community supervision programs

  • Health: health and human services, public health, and parks and recreation 

  • Support: housing assistance, employment assistance, civic and community engagement, and arts and culture

Here is what these breakdowns look like in Los Angeles, CA & San Francisco, CA:

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San Francisco

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Los Angeles

 
How Do Cities Line Up?

There is enormous variation in the CRI values across our cities, but patterns do emerge. The average CRI value is squarely negative. On the whole, these cities invest substantially more in systems of punishment and control than they do on health and social supports, as evidenced by a median CRI value of -0.56. The majority of cities in our dataset have a CRI value between -0.45 and -0.65.

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Figure 5

With these scatter plots (see Figure 6), you can see the relationship between a city’s CRI value and the percentage of the population that identifies as BIPOC. Opaque, red dots indicate higher percentages of BIPOC. 

Figure 6

We have also visualized the relationship between each city’s population size and its CRI value (see Figure 7). Note that the Y-axis is populated in thousands and the X-axis covers the range of CRI values. There are signals in the data that larger cities have CRIs of greater magnitudes, although the strength of this relationship is statistically insignificant and largely driven by outliers. Furthermore, even those higher CRIs tend to remain negative. 

Figure 7

Note that NYC was excluded from this figure due to its large population size

Figure 8

The 4-year average distribution of CRI totals.

Previous Research

Our initial analysis of the crude budget data for FY 2020 yielded a median CRI of -0.27, suggesting that the cities in our sample spent significantly more on carceral systems than on health and social support systems combined.

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Additional Resources

The Tax Burden of Incarceration

Image by Hush Naidoo
Image by Denys Nevozhai

Healthcare Access

Image by Hush Naidoo
Doctor Using Digital Tablet

Substance Use Treatment

Image by Patrick Perkins
Sticky Notes