July 10, 2008
HIDDEN COSTS Communities Pay for High Prison Rate
Now 66 years old, Ms. Coleman has three youngsters at home -- ages 5, 3 and 1. She doesn't know the whereabouts of her granddaughter, who is their mother. As for the children's fathers, they have both been in trouble with the law. One is in prison serving a 10-year term for second-degree murder. The other has been in and out of jail on drug charges.
"I didn't intend to raise my great-grandkids," says Ms. Coleman, who relies on supplies of diapers and baby wipes from a local social-services center. "There are so many things I can't do for them because of money, but I have to try."
Here in South Mountain, a district in south Phoenix, more than 3,800 residents are displaced, serving time in prison or the county jail. For every 100 adults, 6.1 are behind bars. That's more than five times the national average of 1.09 per 100, according to a report by the Pew Center, a nonpartisan research group. Arizona has the fastest-growing prison population of the Western states, having increased 5.3% in 2007 to more than 38,000.
Behind those figures are many hidden, related costs -- financial burdens that communities are often left to manage. For every person who goes to jail, businesses lose either a potential employee or customer. Inmates' children often depend on extended families, rather than a parent, to raise them. With only so many government resources to go around, churches, volunteer programs and other groups must often step in to help.
In one nine-block stretch of central South Mountain, nearly 500 out of 16,000 residents are in the state system either as prisoners or as probationers who return regularly to jail. Prison costs associated with this nine-block area amount to roughly $11 million annually, according to an estimate from the Justice Mapping Center, a New York organization that examines crime patterns.
But the state spends more than half that amount -- an additional $6.5 million -- on social programs for the residents who remain. In that nine-block span, 2,000 people receive cash payments under the federal government's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Nearly 5,000 are on food stamps. Almost one-third of the residents live below the poverty level. The total cost of prison and social services combined: approximately $2 million per block. [Mark Godsey]
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