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What is a Million Dollar Block?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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A million dollar block is a neighborhood or block with enough imprisoned residents that one million dollars or more is being spent on prison costs. The cost of imprisonment is so high that it takes surprisingly few imprisoned residents to reach the million dollar mark, spawning the related “five million dollar block.” In a million dollar block, more government resources may be spent on imprisonment than any other social or public services, raising a number of questions in extremely poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The concept of the million dollar block emerged in 1998, when researchers in New York City began mapping incarcerations block by block, creating a visual representation of the number of people on each block who were in prison. They identified a number of hot spot neighborhoods, where large numbers of former residents were in prison, and started calling them “million dollar blocks.” By looking at million dollar blocks, a number of trends have been identified; such blocks, for example, typically have large numbers of citizens below the poverty level, along with a high number of minorities.

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People who are concerned about criminal justice have suggested that rather than using abstract measures to prevent crime, cities could concentrate their resources on million dollar blocks. The argument is that by concentrating social service efforts on specific areas, cities might be able to mitigate the conditions which make a neighborhood especially prone to crime, potentially reducing the incarceration rate and thereby freeing up resources for other things, like education, public works, health care, and so forth.

The million dollar block also draws attention to the way that criminal justice is handled. Many million dollar blocks have former residents who have been imprisoned for violent crimes, but many more are imprisoned for non-violent crimes like robbery or drug use. By focusing on how much money is spent on incarceration for these crimes, some activists hope to see more interest in public service programs and other alternatives to jail time, freeing up space in jail as well as public funds.

Finding out whether or not you live on a million dollar block can be a challenge. Some cities have started pilot crime mapping programs like the one used in New York City, and these maps are sometimes available to the public. If they aren't, or your city has not tried crime mapping yet, you might consider pushing for an open crime mapping program, as the reorganization of existing crime data can sometimes reveal hidden trends which a city might use to its advantage.

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