New York's Shrinking Prisons


In the nearly two decades since New York cops famously shifted their attention to “quality of life” misdemeanors, the number of people caught in the state's justice system— from jails and prisons to probation and parole—has shrunk by between 15 and 19 percent.

The law enforcement strategy, launched in 1994 by then-New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Bill Bratton—popularly known as “Broken Windows' policing—has also been credited as one of the factors behind the dramatic decline in the city's major crime rate.

But its singular impact on incarceration rates has also recently drawn the attention of scholars. A study released last week linking the strategy to the country's largest single decline in jail and prison populations, entitled, How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?” has already touched a sensitive chord.

The sensitivity became apparent last night during a discussion at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, featuring the study's authors and critics of the NYPD's aggressive (and controversial) “Stop, Question and Frisk” program.

Glenn Martin, vice-president of the Fortune Society, a non-profit organization that provides support services for prisoners re-entering society, said the study doesn't prove NYPD policies are responsible for the decrease in corrections populations.

“If I see it's snowing outside and I go bake a cake, and then come back and the snow has stopped, it's not because I baked a cake,” Martin said.

But James Austin, one of the study's authors, said after the debate that the police department's move away from felonies — which lead to longer prison sentences — had directly impacted the incarceration rate.

“Felony inmates are the ones who stay in the jails and can't get out,” said Austin, who is the president of the JFA Institute, a non-profit that researches crime and the criminal justice system. “These drops did not occur anywhere else in New York, only in New York City. So you can kind of put the pieces together.”

To Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, the report was a vindication of a police force that has expanded its presence in high crime “hot spot” minority neighborhoods.

MacDonald argued that increased misdemeanor arrests in minority neighborhoods prevent would-be felons from committing more serious, or violent, crimes—which disproportionately impacts young minority men.

“Police-driven crime drops is the most progressive of government programs,” MacDonald said. “The overwhelming beneficiary of that drop is minority males, who have made up over 70 percent of the victims.”

But the study's authors and others at the debate said they're not convinced that that stepping up arrests for low-level crime is a productive law enforcement strategy.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, argued that while the state's incarceration rate was down, an increasing number of people are involved with the criminal justice system in a negative way.

In 2011, New York City residents were stopped and frisked nearly 700,000 times, compared to less than 100,000 times in 2002.

Despite some changes to the policy, instituted by NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly in response to the criticism, stop-and-frisk continues to be a lightening rod for community anger.

Earlier this month, a New York federal judge ruled one element of the police stops unconstitutional—a move that some observers say could end up unraveling the entire strategy.

Editor's NOTE: See “Is Stop and Frisk finally on the Way Out” in The Crime Report's Viewpoint section.

The authors of the mass incarceration study pointed out that both the city's declining crime rate and the decrease in prison populations began before the city escalated its Stop, Question and Frisk campaign.

The fact that stops in minority neighborhoods continued to increase even while crime and incarceration rates were falling is troubling to former NYPD officer and current John Jay College professor Eugene O'Donnell.

“You can't look at the amount of enforcement and not be troubled,” O'Donnell said. “The idea of having this machine going at full throttle, in the midst of this safe city, is disturbing.”

Whether the state will benefit from a machine that imprisons fewer people but regularly interacts with more minority youth remains to be seen, said the study's co-author Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice.

“The number of young people going through the system, those have costs. Are the costs worth the benefit? We don't know,” Jacobson said.

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

Comments are closed.