Why map incarceration in LA?

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KCRW’s Off the Block began in Westmont, a small Los Angeles neighborhood that has seen hundreds of arrests over the past five years according to a map developed by UCLA researchers and community organizations. The mapping project is called “Million Dollar Hoods” and it uses data from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to map where in Los Angeles County arrestees come from and estimates how much is spent incarcerating residents of each of the county’s neighborhoods.

While the map shows a striking picture of LA through the lens of incarceration, its creators hope it also influences decision makers to commit resources to keeping people out of jail through services and job creation.

Diana Zuñiga, Statewide Organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, one of the groups involved in the project talked to KCRW about the project.

KCRW: What is a Million Dollar Hood?

Diana Zuñiga: A Million Dollar Hood is a neighborhood where Los Angeles squanders enormous amounts of money to arrest and incarcerate its community members. We analyzed data from the sheriff’s department to see how many people were arrested in a given neighborhood and how many resources were wasted on law enforcement arresting and incarcerating Angelenos. The drastic waste of taxpayer dollars in particular communities is seen in a comparison of neighborhood #186 (Beverly Hills) and neighborhood #6 (Norwalk), where I live. In the last five years, Los Angeles County spent around $363,000 on arrests and incarceration in Beverly Hills, while it spent $23 million in Norwalk.

KCRW: What is different about these hoods?

DZ: The true essence of a Million Dollar Hood is a neighborhood that is usually low-income or working class with predominately people of color that populate the community. This community is highly policed and incarcerated for petty crimes. This leaves the hood with little to no resources to generate programs that really address harm in communities that sometimes are rooted in drug use, violence in the home, or mental health issues.

These communities are sometimes on the outskirts of the main city, like the Antelope Valley, where the top two ranked neighborhoods for law enforcement spending are placed. Lancaster and Palmdale together wasted $143 million in incarceration and policing by the LA Sheriff’s Department and are 70 miles away from LA City. The city of Lancaster is also facing the construction of a women’s jail for $120 million that will incarcerate close to 5,000 people every year.   

KCRW: Why did you decide to create this map?

DZ: Our coalition decided to enter into a partnership with Dr. Kelly Lytle-Hernandez after over a decade of fighting in LA against jail expansion and for community programs and services. Our group couldn’t figure out the reasons why people were being incarcerated, the data simply was not available.

In 2011, as public safety realignment was implemented to shift people with non-violent, non-serious, and non-sexual offenses to county jail instead of state prison, organizers continued to see jail populations increase, and the sheriff’s budget increased along with it. We thought that these non-serious offenses would mean non-jail and community supportive services for many, but even after the passage of Prop. 47, which decreased some low level felonies to misdemeanors, we continued to experience the sheriff’s reach for more money. We also saw the Los Angeles jail plan expand from building one women’s jail to a $3.7 billion jail plan that prioritized the building of an enormous mental health jail.  

As a coalition, we knew we had to understand the texture of who is in the jail system in order to reimagine how funding could be re-directed from incarcerating people towards trauma informed, holistic community solutions. Dr. Lytle-Hernandez shared the Million Dollar Hoods Project with us and we knew this was a perfect way to get a data driven snap shot of what programs we needed to invest resources into and what communities we needed to prioritize.

KCRW: What do you hope this mapping project will achieve? Why does counting the cost of incarceration at the neighborhood-level matter? And who does it matter to?

DZ: I hope this mapping project will help people visually see the high costs of policing and incarceration in the communities we are a part of. As many of us are consistently being left with feelings of anger at how many black lives are currently being lost at the hands of law enforcement, I hope that this data will give us tangible numbers that back up how we see police power controlling and hurting our communities right now. I hope that we see how the social issues our loved ones are facing could be supported if there was a massive shift in resources away from law enforcement. I hope it will push us all to speak out about what will really keep us safe, that we stop when we see someone being harassed by the police, and that we begin to think of different ways that we can address harm in our communities so that one day we won’t have to call the police. It matters because these hoods are the places where we live and breathe. They are the places we are raising our families and laughing with our friends. These spaces are important to us, and the money going into police instead of giving us support and hope should matter.

It also needs to matter to elected officials at the local and state level that represent where we live. Our communities need decision makers to divest from policing and invest in the very survival of our communities. The data gives a good framework and concrete numbers for decision makers and advocates to implement law enforcement divestment and community investment strategies right now. We can invest in so much more, like jobs that employ system impacted people like Isadore Recycling Center, youth centers that train young organizers like Chucos Justice Center, community gathering spaces like Mercado La Paloma, places where people in poverty discover new opportunities like the Los Angeles Community Action Network, libraries that promote political education like the Southern California Library, and many other organizations that are caring for people on the ground.

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