Criminalization vs. Care
How the 20 largest US cities invest their resources – read the full report here.
In many communities across the US, when children and families need help, there is a robust network of supports and resources to meet their needs. When residents experience mental or behavioral health challenges, there are systems in place to provide the appropriate care. In these communities, there are abundant parks and recreational opportunities. There is a vibrant cultural scene. Efforts are made to ensure access to affordable housing and address climate change. In these communities—ones that millions of (mostly White and affluent) US residents enjoy—the priority in spending tax dollars is on building Systems of Community Care.
However, in many other US communities, and particularly communities of color, that is not the case. There are still substantial investments of public dollars being made in these places. Lack of resources is not the problem. The problem is that rather than those resources being used to create more livable communities, policymakers tend to instead direct far more of them to expanding the Mass Criminalization System. In other words, within many communities, far too much is spent on systems that put people in handcuffs, jail, and prison, and far too little is spent on the Systems of Community Care that residents actually need to thrive.
In this report, we examine the 2022 budgets of the 20 largest US cities and their respective counties (if applicable) to determine whether their investments prioritize the Mass Criminalization System or Systems of Community Care (see boxes on page 3 for definitions). We analyze the size of these public investments, the ratio between them, the cost to local residents, how that translates into the city personnel that residents encounter on a daily basis, and how these dynamics have shifted over time.
Our key findings include:
1. Each of the 20 largest US cities is spending at least hundreds of millions of dollars per year on the criminal legal system, with the vast majority of those resources going to the police. Many cities and counties spend in the billions, with New York City the largest at $7.7 billion in 2022. In total, these cities and their counties are spending $37.9 billion on the Mass Criminalization System in 2022 (see Figure 1).
2. 16 out of the 20 cities invest more on the Mass Criminalization System than they do on Systems of Community Care. In some cities, it is as much as 11 times more. At the county level, 9 out of 14 counties spend more on mass criminalization than on community care, with some counties spending up to 51 times more (see Figure 2).
3. In 19 out of the 20 cities, and 12 out of 14 counties, there are more personnel employed within the Mass Criminalization System than there are within Systems of Community Care. In many cities and counties, there are more than 10 times as many criminal legal system employees as there are community care workers. Overall, the Mass Criminalization System in these areas employs more than twice as many people as the Systems of Community Care.
4. Sustaining the Mass Criminalization System is extremely costly for local taxpayers. For example, in each of the cities, the amount of local dollars being spent in 2022 on the criminal legal system is between $902 and $2,826 per household. Average local spending on the criminal legal system at the county level is another $115 to $1,442 per household.
5. The range of local investments into Systems of Community Care is very wide. For example, at the city level, in 2022 it varied from $204 per household in Indianapolis to $8,303 per household in San Francisco.
6. Spending on the criminal legal system has not always been this high. In fact, even after adjusting for inflation, criminal legal spending has more than doubled since
1980 in 18 of the 20 cities, and 11 of the 13 available counties. Over that time, some localities’ spending grew by as much as 555%.
7. These dynamics are a fundamental aspect of the systemic racism that is impeding the advancement and well-being of communities of color across the US. For example, these types of extreme investments into the Mass Criminalization System and disparities with respect to investments into Systems of Community Care are seen almost exclusively within Black and Brown communities.
8. Examining the public investments being made into criminal legal systems that have been wildly ineffective at creating truly safe communities—while also actively causing enormous harm—raises numerous exciting possibilities for reimagining public safety and ensuring that city and county budgets are aligned with community needs and values.