Sandtown-Winchester, the blighted community just west of downtown Baltimore that has been the target of multimillion-dollar revitalization efforts over the past two decades, is home to more people held in state prisons than any other census tract in Maryland, advocacy groups reported Wednesday.
The 458 inmates from the community cost the state $17 million each year to incarcerate, the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative reported — money, the groups say, that would be better invested in improving the community.
"It's critical that we have this information so policy-makers and others can have a more informed discussion, and hopefully a data-driven discussion, about how they spend resources and implement policies," said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute.
The groups say Maryland taxpayers are spending $288 million a year to incarcerate people from the city. That includes nearly $47 million for inmates from West Baltimore alone.
Inmates from Baltimore make up more than one-third of the state's prison population.
The adjoining Southwest Baltimore census tract, which includes Carrollton Ridge, Union Square and Penrose, ranked second in the state with 413 inmates who cost $15.3 million a year to incarcerate. The Greater Rosemont tract ranked third with 411 inmates who cost $15.2 million.
The numbers do not surprise Dwight Davis, 26, who works at a food pantry in Sandtown-Winchester. He says about 20 families come each day for food, baby supplies and hygiene products.
"This area is pretty rough," said Davis. "You've got the projects up the street, and there's always big drug raids going on. ... Mostly, it's just guys standing around."
Schindler said taxpayers would get a better return if they invested in workforce training, education and housing.
He said the money needed to send one person to prison for a year would pay for employment training for up to seven people, pay a month's rent for 30 families to live in 2-bedroom apartments, or help 37 people get a GED.
Del. Jill Carter, a Democrat who represents Northwest Baltimore, said the report "should lead to a much more informed discussion on how taxpayer money is being spent in these communities."
"Along with passing legislation that we know will help reduce the number of people going to prison, shorten their sentences and reduce criminal justice spending, policy-makers and the public need better tools to help measure whether we are making the right investments in these communities," Carter said.
The report's authors used data from a 2010 effort to determine where inmates live for the purpose of political redistricting.
Until 2010, inmates were counted as residents of the areas in which they were being held. Under the No Representation Without Population Act of 2010, they now are counted as residents of the communities from which they came.
"We've known these are troubled communities," Schindler said. "For the first time we have real detail about the connection to incarceration [and] what exactly is being spent to incarcerate these communities."
Groups from across the political spectrum are pushing for alternatives to incarceration. The ACLU, the Center for American Progress, Koch Industries and FreedomWorks announced plans last week to team up to try to reduce prison populations. The MacArthur Foundation unveiled a $75 million initiative to reduce the nation's use of jails.
In Maryland, Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and former Chief Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr. have backed a bipartisan group called the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform. Murphy said he is particularly interested in reducing the number of ex-convicts who return to prison.
"It's not just the people who have come out ... who benefit," Murphy said. "Every one of us benefits. It's a matter of good public policy to try to cut down on that kind of behavior."
Sandtown-Winchester has been the focus of intensive renewal efforts since the early 1990s, when Columbia developer James Rouse and community groups such as Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) teamed up to improve the area. The Abell Foundation estimated that they pumped $130 million in public and private money into the neighborhood, mostly for housing, through 2000.
Several hundred new rowhouses were built on the site of an abandoned commercial bakery, and those homes remain a bright spot in an area struggling with blight. The Wylie Funeral Home opened a $2.5 million state-of-the-art facility last year, after decades operating out of adjoining rowhouses nearby.
The Rev. Glenna Huber, a member of BUILD, said the group is pleased with its efforts in Sandtown-Winchester, but also learned lessons that it is applying to its work in the Oliver area on the city's east side.
"We're building affordable housing [in Oliver] but at the same time we are building economic opportunity," Huber said. "People can build new houses, but if you don't allow for the people in the neighborhood to transform themselves, you just have nice houses and people still living in substandard conditions."