Special Interview with Eric Cadora on Mapping, Criminalization, and Public Health


I had the opportunity to interview Eric Cadora, the founder of the Justice Mapping Center. In this interview, we talk about Mapping, Criminalization and Public Health.



Can you share a little bit about how your writing or your data visualizations speak to issues of criminalization and public health?

First and foremost, I think, what we were trying to do through using maps and geography to talk about criminal justice was we’ve been trying to reframe the conversation about crime and public safety onto communities rather than on crime, and one of the things that occurred to me when we first started doing this was that if you shift the focus from crime events to where people live who are going in and out of prison and you map that, you’re going to have a very different story than if you’re looking at crime maps, which were much more popular. By shifting it to show the disproportionate concentration of criminal justice in particular neighborhoods, you can start to talk about places rather than get pigeon holed in that getting tough, being soft polemic that everyone got stuck on. It was a story that I didn’t think had really been told empirically, so we started collecting data from places about where people lived who were going in and out of prison and jail, and that helped us paint a geographic picture and, of course, maps are a much more compelling way to portray the issue because everyone gets it, whether you’re a researcher or a legislator, and everybody sees immediately what’s going on, which turns out to be really this mass migration, population displacement and resettlement project, even if unintentional, so that when you map where people are going in and out of prison from and returning to, you see this almost pattern of mass migration.

Then we thought, “Let’s try to dramatize the trade offs in the underwriting of this whole cycling process. Because we had collected data on where everyone lived who was going in and out of prison, where they went to and for how long, and you know how much it cost per day, we were able to translate the data into dollar estimates of block by block, how much is New York State paying to remove and return people from each of these blocks? When we first looked at Brooklyn, we found 35 of what we then coined as “Million-dollar blocks,” single city blocks for which the State was paying more than a million dollars a year to remove and return people to and from prison on average for about three-and-a-half years or so. Of course, none of that money was going into those places. It was renting prison cells, and so, by doing the million-dollar blocks graphics and geographics, we were able to shift the conversation and suggest that there’s a trade off there, and that those dollars are really there for the benefit of the well being of those places.

Then you ask the imaginary question. If you had the million dollars a year, that block and those guys, what would you do? Would you spend it all on sending them away for two or three years and then having them come back with no changes to the neighborhood, or would you try to reinvest them in some other conditions that are prevalent in the neighborhood itself?

Ultimately, what we’ve done is tried to show that these places are inundated with criminal justice and that no more criminal justice is going to make any difference, and that, in fact, when we look at the other kinds of data about those neighborhoods, like living environments, housing costs, income, poverty levels, health, etc., we start to find that there are many weak civil institutions, and in some ways, the criminal justice system is responding to that poverty and ill health with more criminal justice, as if that could sort of balance it out for the weakness of those other institutions, and of course, it doesn’t.

Portraying all this vis a vis maps of neighborhoods has been a way of showing where the rubber really hits the road because even though we know about about a lot of the statistics about mass incarceration and disproportionality, those disproportionalities are mild compared to the ones between one neighborhood and another in any particular major city. That’s where the real differences are, and you really start to see where the system takes effect.

As time has gone on, though, we’ve been looking more at these neighborhoods, and what becomes evident and what linked up in our mind with public health and the inevitability of really thinking more about this in terms of public health and public safety is that these neighborhoods are increasingly characterized by emergency response systems, urgent care response systems, so not just the prison or the jail but also the emergency room. The homeless shelter, foster care, etc. Last resort options. Last resort techniques, but mainly into populations that suffer from chronic issues. Increasingly, once we start to add these up, we see incredible amounts of money being spent for emergency response systems for people who need chronic neighborhood network care, not emergency response care, and that’s where we’ve been increasingly focusing our vision on how do you dramatize that issue and start to suggest ways in which you can pull out of those emergency response approaches and start to develop the more useful neighborhood chronic care networks and outreach systems.

What are your thoughts on policy approaches that draw from public health rather than criminal justice? Do you think that these are better or just reproduce the same systems of inequality?

That’s an awfully good question. There is an increasing realization in public health about the need for harm reduction approaches rather than emergency, and I think there’s also an increasing realization that these emergency response systems are simply making up for weak civil chronic care systems. Increasingly, I think there is attention to, “Why are we treating asthma, why are we treating outcomes of obesity, why are we treating drug addiction in emergency rooms at incredible costs and very little effect when these are issues that are more chronic and require prevention, education, and on-the-ground kinds of services that are a little more sophisticated than the big institution?”

Instead of plopping a big hospital or a big community center or a big … All these kinds of things are suggesting increasingly that integrating networks of public health and public safety into the networks that are already active in those neighborhoods. People are already grappling with health issues, are already grappling with problems of unemployment and problems of criminal justice, so what’s a little more difficult but much more effective is this understanding that we should tap into those networks and let’s help mobilize those that are already on the ground. I think public health environments are increasingly realizing that, but I also think that criminal justice solutions can really find a purchase in public health thinking, particularly around harm reduction and chronic care, so that we come up with the kinds of responses to crime and criminal offenses and so on that are not simply harmful and costly with very little productivity and a great deal of cost to the community but in fact, could be integrated into those networks in the community, into developing community service work, into a whole range of options that don’t necessarily require iron bars and concrete walls for punishment, and I think public health, because the public health environment suffers from some of the same over urgent care responses, it also has a lot more tested solutions, I think, to those problems that criminal justice can borrow and take advantage of.

I also think that people just don’t realize how closely the populations are overlapping; that is, populations that are in chronic ill health over time due to relationships with poverty and so on are the same populations that are going in and out or prison and jail, and so understanding those two as a single group in a certain way gives you more opportunity to wed solutions that are greater, where the whole is greater than the individual parts. I think it’s inevitable, in fact, that public health and safety will be increasingly considered a thing, a single unitary way of thinking, rather than this more fractured sense of criminal justice and healthcare.

A major focus of JustPublics@365 is bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement and greater democracy. What sort of ‘lessons learned’ do you have from your experience with entering a terrain more frequently trod by activists and academics?

Yeah. I’ll admit, that’s kind of what one of the sort of planks of our approach has been to say, “Look. Most stories are about crime in the criminal justice journalist’s word, and those that aren’t are about reentry or prisons and tend to be anecdotal or, if they’re statistics, they tend to be very far reaching, but I think journalists can find better purchase in stories that focus on specific neighborhoods and understanding the hyper concentration of criminal justice in those places and starting to reveal those or tell those stories in a way that both highlights these new data and this new realization about these highly-concentrated, incarceration hotspots, you might say, and the collective impact on those neighborhoods of such a large proportion of mainly parenting-aged and working-aged men recycling through the prison system back into the community en masse, in a way that makes the whole community downwardly mobile and instead of being a solution to what’s been going on to crime and so on, the cure itself has become a measure of disadvantage in those neighborhoods so that when you look at a place and you say, “Well, it’s high poverty, low income, high incarceration itself is now one of those disadvantages because of the terrible impact it has on future life chances, whether it’s employment or health or education or even staying out of jail.

I think increasingly journalists an turn to these new sources of data, and this stuff has, I’d say, emerged over the last decade where the focus of the crime conversation is no longer simply crime prevention techniques but rather, a better understanding of what hyper criminal justice activity, what kind of damage that is causing, and the pretty obvious and straight forward, available solutions there are to remedy that.


This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on From Punishment To Public Health (P2PH). If you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to P2PH or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at justpublics365@gmail.com with the subject line, “P2PH Series.”