New York achieved its 70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer people in the past decade. The number of city prisoners dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week, says the Washington Post. That runs counter to the national trend of prison admissions’ jumping 72 percent during that time. Nearly 2.2 million Americans now live behind bars, about eight times as many as in 1975 and the most per capita in the Western world. “If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it’s ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells,” said Michael Jacobson, who served as correction commissioner for former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and now heads the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends.
In the past few years, legislators in such conservative states as Louisiana and Mississippi have passed sentencing reforms. Kansas and Nebraska are reconsidering prison expansion in favor of less expensive drug treatment. The U.S. spends about $60 billion each year on prisons. Current New York City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn got his start decades ago as a prison guard. “I leave it to the economists and the moralists to decide if we’ve paid too high a cost to imprison,” Horn said. “But New York proves you can lock up a lot fewer people and get a pretty big impact.”