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Incarceration’s toll falls unevenly in Boston

Residents in Boston neighborhoods with large minority populations are incarcerated at a far higher rate than those who live in less racially diverse areas, a new report has found.

Roxbury and Dorchester residents are jailed at about twice the rate of the city as a whole, according to the study, titled “The Geography of Incarceration.”

The Franklin Field section of Dorchester, for example, had the highest concentration of incarcerated residents in 2013, making up nearly 5 percent of the city’s total. The area is home to just over 1 percent of the city’s population.

Researchers said the disproportionate rates have devastating effects.


“In the communities of color in our city, nearly every other home, at least every other street has been affected by incarceration,” said Ben Forman, the research director at the independent think tank MassINC and an author of the report. “When you have so many families all at once affected by incarceration, that neighborhood cannot be healthy.”

The findings were presented Thursday at an event hosted by The Boston Foundation, which collaborated on the report with MassINC and the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The event featured a panel discussion with Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins, other elected officials, and John J. Larivee, president of the nonprofit group Community Resources for Justice.

Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said he hopes the findings draw attention to the need for reform.

“I think we are all painfully aware that the American criminal justice system is characterized by unacceptably high incarceration rates, particularly for people of color,” Grogan said.

The report recommends eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and imposing punishments that spare some defendants from serving jail time.

Researchers tracked incarceration rates from 2009 to 2015 using data from the Suffolk County sheriff’s department, which runs the Nashua Street Jail, and from the Suffolk County House of Correction. The report didn’t count Boston residents serving time behind bars in state or federal prisons and county jails outside Suffolk County, Forman said.


Researchers also mapped the home addresses of people released from prison over that same span, allowing them to calculate incarceration levels in Franklin Field, Grove Hall, Codman Square, Dudley Square, and Fields Corner. Neighborhoods with high minority populations had substantially higher incarceration rates, the data showed.

State Representative Evandro Carvalho, a Democrat from Dorchester, said incarceration rates are a high barrier to economic prosperity.

“It’s tied to economics, quality jobs,” he said. “I see folks that are going in and out of jail and I know that they have poor education.”

The report also examined crime rates in areas with high incarceration levels and how much taxpayers spent to imprison Boston residents.

Researchers found a wide gulf between neighborhood incarceration rates and crime. In neighborhoods such as Franklin Field and Grove Hall, for example, the rate of incarceration is higher than reports of violence and property crimes. In Back Bay and downtown, the reverse was true.

Researchers said they couldn’t draw “firm conclusions” about the discrepancy.

“Some of this disparity could be related to racial bias, inequality, or variation in the seriousness of the offenses committed,” they wrote. “It could also be attributed to individuals simply committing crimes outside the neighborhoods where they live.”

Tompkins said he believes the high cost of incarceration will spur legislative changes. In 2013, taxpayers spent $66 million to imprison Boston residents, including nearly $9 million for people who lived in Franklin Field, the report found.


“Enough is enough,” Tompkins said. “We cannot any longer afford to incarcerate as many people as we do.”

The $66 million total is 2½ times what the state spent on Bunker Hill and Roxbury community colleges that year, Forman said.

Researchers said a previous study concluded that incarceration rates in some Boston neighborhoods had reached levels where it was responsible for increasing crime.

“When you have a whole neighborhood worth of people that are involved in the criminal justice system it’s constant in and out, in and out,” said Laura van der Lugt, the director of research and innovation for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and an author of the report. “The social fabric is just breaking down.”

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at