How did New York State manage to cut its prison population while reducing crime? Send many fewer drug offenders to prison and have many more minor offenders serving shorter sentences, experts told a “smart justice” symposium yesterday near Washington, D.C. The session was sponsored by the CNA consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., which is working with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance on a “smart policing” initiative.
Criminologist James Austin, who is doing research for the Council of State Governments and Pew Charitable Trusts, said that New York State prison numbers are driven primarily by practices in New York City. The city arrested almost as many people in 2008 as it did in 1998, but sent 35 percent fewer people to state prison, Austin said. The city’s emphasis on prosecuting more people for “quality of life” crimes means that “more people were churning through the justice system for much less [prison] time,” Deputy New York City Police Commissioner Michael Farrell told the session. Austin noted that despite a big drop in New York State’s prison population, the state is spending more running the system than it did a decade ago because the state has been unable to close prisons. (A CNA case study on the subject is not yet available on the Web.)