Wall Street Journal—City Reports Drop in Incarceration Rate

Laura Nahmias, December 20, 2012
Wall Street Journal

New York City reported a 32 % decrease in both the felony crime rate and the number of people behind bars since Mayor Bloomberg took office.

The local incarceration rate is now 27 % lower than the rest of the country, according to a release issued Thursday by the mayor’s office.

wsj2012picThe Bloomberg administration credited its own policies for the decline in incarceration and felony crime, including the New York City Police Department’s data-based enforcement techniques, and criminal justice programs that focus on alternatives to jail, particularly for young people.

“Policing strategies that reduce crime have the added benefit of dramatically reducing incarceration in New York City,” said Chief Policy Advisor John Feinblatt in the release. “This was not foreordained. Instead it is the result of stopping crimes before they happen, and keeping those who would have been convicted of those crimes out of jails, productively engaged in their communities.”

The city says that in 2001, there were 699 inmates per 100,000 city residents in 2001, compared to 620 per 100,000 nationwide — meaning that city had a 13 % higher incarceration rate than the nation.

But last year in the city, there were 474 inmates per 100,000 New Yorkers, compared to 650 per 100,000 in the United States.

But criminal justice experts said that while the NYPD’s consistent policing and commitment to jail alternatives were definitely a contributing factor to the city’s low incarceration rate, the real reasons behind the decline in felony crimes are a mystery- the subject of endless books, and criminal studies experts’ hypotheses.

Experts said that felony crime rates are decreasing nationally and even internationally, despite wide variation in policing techniques, making it difficult to establish the causal link between New York’s policies and the consistently low crime rate.

“Crime is coming down all over the country, and every mayor and police chief points to things they’re doing in their city. But if it’s a nationwide phenomenon, it’s something bigger than what just New York City is doing,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“What happens when you have encouraging crime news, is that the mayor turns to the police chief and says ‘Hey, what did we do last year, it worked!’” said Frank Zimring, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The City that Became Safe,” which examines the possible reasons behind New York City’s precipitous decline in crime over the past two decades.

But experts also praised  Bloomberg. No matter what the reasons behind the decline in crime, the city had much lower incarceration rates than most other major cities. Experts credited  the city criminal justice system’s focus on jail alternatives.

Before the mid-1990s, “we used incarceration as if it was magic, assuming locking more people up would bring the crime rate down,” Jeffrey Butts said.

“We now know definitively, you can use alternatives, common sense, without using the blunt instrument of physical removal of the community. It just takes resources, creativity, managerial competence, and political willingness to do that,” he said.

Zimring said more study is necessary to establish a definite causal link between the city’s various juvenile justice programs and the low incarceration rate.

“What we know from New York’s experience is that trying to change individual behaviors in community settings can work very well, but you still have to count your change very carefully, and rigorously evaluate particular people-changing exercises,” Zimring said.

“We know for a fact that midnight basketball programs are not doomed to failure, but that doesn’t mean all you have to do is open the gym and the crime rate plummets.”

copyright The Wall Street Journal