Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Criminal Punishment and the Politics of Place

Academic journal article Fordham Urban Law Journal

Criminal Punishment and the Politics of Place

Article excerpt

Introduction                         571   I. County Prosecutors, City Crime  574  II. Prisons and the Census          585 Conclusion                           592 


As a general matter, our criminal justice system focuses on the person: who committed the crime and what punishment does that person deserve? Most of the reforms that have been proposed or passed over the past nine or ten years have primarily focused on the who as well, seeking to change the rules under which parole boards operate, or the ways in which we train or oversee police officers, or how we address implicit racial biases in judges. (1)

Yet where plays a significant role in crime and punishment as well. In fact, in the end, where likely matters more than who. For instance, crime is densely concentrated. Most reported crimes in any city take place in only a small fraction of city blocks, with neighborhoods often maintaining their high- or low-crime status even as the population within these neighborhoods changes. (2) As one scholar points out, it is easier to predict where a crime will happen in a city than who in that city will commit it. (3) Furthermore, racial disparities in offending are the product of place, produced in no small part by how government policies have shaped where people live. Decades of government policies, such as explicitly segregating public housing, (4) explicitly and implicitly tolerating or encouraging redlining, (5) and denying the GI Bill (6) and FHA mortgages (and thus the ability to invest in higher-quality housing) to Black Americans, (7) all worked to concentrate disadvantage and social instability in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods. (8) The cumulative effects of these policies are still felt today. (9)

If the story of crime is largely one of place, then the story of punishment is as well. A significant share of crimes occurs in proximity to where those who commit them live, so the geographic concentration of crime concentrates punishment as well. Some studies talk of "million dollar blocks," which are single city blocks that have so many residents behind bars that at any given time the state is allegedly spending at least $1 million per year to incarcerate these people. (10) As a result, the costs (as well as the benefits) of punishment have an impact on place that extends beyond the individuals incarcerated. A simple but striking example: in one study of a high-incarceration neighborhood in Washington, D.C., scholar Donald Braman reported that so many men were behind bars that it disrupted family formation in that area. (11) Healthy family formation requires a male-female ratio of approximately 50-50, but in some areas, that ratio fell to about 60 men for every 100 women. (12) Since most people form relationships with those they live close to, this is a clear geographic cost of punishment.

This Essay explores another connection between punishment and place: how geography shapes the politics of punishment. To understand why actors in the criminal justice system act the way they do, it is essential to understand their incentives, and that requires us to carefully examine not just who these people are but where they are. What are the boundaries that define the constituents to whom these actors respond and thus their incentives and goals?

When we take a closer look at the geography of criminal justice, we soon see that what we call the "criminal justice system" is not in any way a system. It is, at best, a web of systems (plural), each of which faces different pressures and politics due in part to different geographies. Police are generally city employees who respond to a police chief who is appointed by a city-elected mayor. Prosecutors are almost always elected by county electorates, parole boards are appointed by state-elected governors, and sentencing laws are written by legislators who are nominally state officials but respond to constituencies that could span several towns (in rural areas) or barely one neighborhood (in dense cities). …

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