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The Geography of Injustice

Periodic Posts about Criminal Justice Reform

The Ecology of Justice

The fast emerging public recognition that our criminal justice system is out of step with a modern understanding of what works and what’s fair, particularly in the ways it affects poor and historically isolated racial and ethnic communities, could fuel the most important retooling of the country’s federal, state, and local criminal justice systems in decades.  However, while statutory reforms are a central ingredient of any modernization, extracting over-governed communities from their perpetual administration by the agencies of the criminal justice system will require a parallel reinvestment in the local ecology of justice that makes places safe.

That means two things: a calculated reduction in our over dependence on last resort government—one-dimensional policing, hyper incarceration, emergency room healthcare, “motel rental” housing, zero tolerance schooling—which all overlap in overwhelming concentration in a few neighborhoods in every city; and, a smartly targeted investment in early response government—community-engaged, problem solving policing, obligatory, supervised and engaged community service, chronic care and home visitation health networks, transitional housing infrastructure, apprenticeship style training, in-school tutoring enrichment, teach-to-teach outreach—which can be brought together in specific places to build the kind of public health and safety environment that rests in the indigenous strengths of those neighborhoods.  

Last resort government is very expensive (see “Million Dollar Blocks” and “Million Dollar Murray”) and ultimately disserves—by making downwardly mobile—those communities it is intended to “rescue.” It’s also unfair and inequitable; it undermines the level-playing-field ethos that Americans expect.


Today, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make the transition to early response government. But it will take more than an exclusive focus on statutory justice reforms. It will take smartly targeted investments and interventions in those communities which grapple with the fallout of decades of criminalization. The emerging application of geographic information systems (computer mapping) to big government data is helping advance this vision. We can now reveal the micro-spatial patterns of overused incarceration, emergency health care, and other expensive, acute responses to chronic problems, predict where interventions will have the greatest impact, and direct investments in very specific combinations in those places.

With so many proven and promising programmatic solutions available to us today to replace last resort governing with early response protocols, we need to invest in the new analytic power of these combined technologies to support smartly targeted community investments in an ecology of justice that can produce lasting public safety and wellbeing in these neighborhoods.

Eric Cadora | February, 2018

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