Taxpayers Spent $5.3B in Last Decade to Lock Up Chicagoans

A growing number of experts are now pushing for a different way to spend -- and possibly save -- some of this money

When someone commits a crime in Chicago, everybody pays -- literally: 

Taxpayers have shelled out an estimated $5.3 billion in the past decade just to incarcerate Chicago citizens who have been convicted of felony offenses, a vast majority of which are non-violent crimes, a new analysis by NBC 5 Investigates and The Chicago Reporter reveals.

The investigation also reveals that a disproportionate amount of that money goes to incarcerate Chicagoans who hail from a small fraction of the city’s blocks. These are frequently people who repeatedly cycle in and out of prison, and who -- because they are convicted felons -- have few options to find legitimate work when they return to their already-depressed neighborhoods.

Faced with this staggering cost of repeatedly incarcerating a relatively small number of the city’s residents, a growing number of experts are now pushing for a different way to spend -- and possibly save -- some of this money.

Take the Austin neighborhood, on Chicago’s far west side. This once-middle-class community is now one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas of the city.  Yet it’s also one of the priciest: The Chicago Reporter / NBC 5 analysis found that taxpayers spent an estimated $644 million to house convicted criminals, just from Austin, in prison since 2000.  That’s 11 percent of prison money, spent on a neighborhood that makes up just 3.5 percent of the city’s population.

"Every time the police looked at you wrong -- penitentiary, penitentiary, penitentiary," says Michael Flowers, a resident of Austin who has gone to prison seven times in the past ten years. 

Like other ex-cons, Flowers says whatever job training and education he received in prison simply wasn’t enough to make a difference when he got out. Many of the storefronts lining Austin’s streets are boarded up and the surviving businesses aren’t necessarily clamoring to hire convicted felons. 

As a result, these ex-cons often see a life of crime as the only real way to make any money.

"These guys are going to come back to the neighborhood," said Angela Caputo, who spearheaded the NBC 5 / Chicago Reporter’s block-by-block analysis of prison costs in Chicago. "They don’t want to spend their whole lives looking over their shoulders, but there’s really nothing for them to do."

"They need to see other options," said David Olson, a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago. "But they also need to be provided with the skills and the tools in order to achieve those options."

Olson said that over the past 30 years, too much money has been spent incarcerating the (often non-violent) criminals from neighborhoods like Austin.  A smarter use of that money, he says, would be to give these convicted felons a new direction when they get out of prison. 

"They’ll continue cycling in and out of these correctional facilities, usually until either they age out of their criminal activity, or when the types of services that they really need are provided to them," he said.

That’s where people like Pastor Reginald Bachus have begun to step in. Bachus, whose Friendship Baptist Church is located in the midst of Austin’s crime-riddled neighborhood, decided if regular businesses wouldn’t hire ex-cons and felons, he would. 

Bachus formed the Friendship Community Development Corporation, which pays some of Austin’s ex-cons to maintain 28 bank-owned homes in the neighborhood that are currently going through foreclosure.

That means someone like Darnell Horton, an Austin resident who served 21 years behind bars on four convictions, can now receive a weekly paycheck. He spends his days shoveling snow around the bank-owned homes with his friend, Bruno Carter, a fellow Austin ex-con who also works for Pastor Bachus’ corporation. 

"It keeps me motivated to get up in the morning and do an honest day’s pay and take care of my family," said Carter.

"They show up every day, on time, and get the job done," said Pastor Bachus. "We’ve had no complaints. There are a lot of good people out there who are willing to do [this kind of work] -- if they have the opportunity.”

The same goes for Flowers, who now lives in transitional housing in Austin, and who says he’s done with his previous life of "penitentiary, penitentiary, penitentiary." 

Flowers hopes to convince local banks, along with city officials, to hire ex-cons to not just maintain Austin’s foreclosed homes, but to actually rehabilitate them. To many, that’s a much smarter way to spend Chicago taxpayers’ money.

For more information on the NBC5/Chicago Reporter investigation, read Angela Caputo's "Cell Blocks" story, as well as her story on the financial effects of Illinois' newly-enhanced drug laws, in the March/April issue of The Chicago Reporter.

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