Cops and Crime


'Better' policing beats factors like imprisonment in keeping U.S. crime rates down, say two noted criminologists

Crime rates in the U.S. should continue to decline if policing remains effective, crime experts told the National Criminal Justice Association yesterday.

Law Prof. Franklin Zimring of the University of California at Berkeley based much of his conclusion on research he has done on a forthcoming book (“The City That Became Safe: New York's Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control,” Oxford University Press, October 2011) trying to explain the dramatic drop in New York City crime over the last two decades.

The major factor in the decline has been better policing, he says.

“Cops matter a heck of a lot more than professors and policy makers have thought,” he told the association's annual forum on criminal justice and public safety, held this year in Jersey City, N.J.

One particular area of police effectiveness is on drugs.

Public drug markets have disappeared in New York City, although the city still has some major drug problems, Zimring said. He didn't elaborate on the kinds of policing he finds most effective.

He added that in the anticrime picture overall, “prisons matter a lot less than we thought,” and the economy has not caused crime to increase, as many have theorized.

James Austin, who runs the Washington, D.C.- and California-based JFA Institute, a criminal-justice consulting firm, noted that the homicide rate in the U.S. is now back to the per-capita level it was in 1968, and “I don't see it going up anytime soon.”

Austin was more definitive in his prediction of a continuing crime drop than was Zimring, who said that although current signs look good, “crime rates are highly variable.”

Impact of Incarceration

Austin agreed with Zimring that the impact of the nation's high incarceration rate on crime has been overstated. He called for a “right-sizing” of the prison and jail population, noting that if today's count behind bars were comparable to the 1968 level compared to the national population, it should be about 290,000 instead of the current 1.6 million.

“The [incarceration] system is way out of whack compared with the level of crime going on,” he said.

The criminologists also agreed that New York City police tactics have led to the way to lower incarceration rates in New York City and New York State. A focus on arresting lower-level offenders has meant that there are 8,000 empty beds in the city's big jail on Rikers Island, Austin said.

There are about 120,000 empty jail beds around the U.S., Austin added.

Despite the lower reported crime figures, much of the public may not yet be convinced that downsizing prisons and jails may be safe, Austin conceded.

(He suggested that the population behind bars might be reduced mainly by not issuing such long prison terms to felons, including “two strikes” and three strikes” sentences.)The biggest change in the near future in prison populations should come in California, which has been ordered by federal courts to cut the inmate total by more than 33,000 so that the state can afford better health care for prisoners.

Ed Note: for a look at changing public perceptions of California's Three Strikes law, in anticipation of a 2012 referendum, please see TCR's conference page on the issue, including recent news stories.

A third panelist, Raymond Massi, a former police captain in crime-plagued Camden, N.J., claimed his city is improving because of the progressive policing policies of Chief John Scott Thomson. Massi now coordinates anticrime activities for the U.S. Attorney's office in New Jersey, which includes working with his former police department and other agencies.

Ted Gest is a contributing editor of The Crime Report, and president of Criminal Justice Journalists

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