How New York City Really Reduced Mass Incarceration


In a report recently published by the Brennan Center for Justice, two nationally renowned criminologists examined the connection between arrest rates in New York City and the state's overall correctional populations.

The report, How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?, makes two essential findings:

(1) A reduction in felony arrests in New York City over the course of the last 10-15 years caused a dramatic reduction in state-wide prison, jail, probation, and parole populations without increasing crime, and
(2) The state's correctional population would have declined further if the state had not enacted draconian laws in the 1990s that significantly increased the amount of time people spend in prison.

That a state can show massive reductions in correctional populations brought about by a city's decision to lock up fewer of its residents is good news.

It confirms what many reformers have been saying for years: we can find creative ways to safely reduce our nation's costly addiction to incarceration.

But the New York City Police Department (NYPD) made other changes in its policing strategies during the same time period, causing confusion about how the report data should be construed.

While the NYPD reduced arrests for nonviolent felonies, it started arresting more people for nonviolent misdemeanors. Some, including representatives of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, have suggested that the report should be read as an endorsement of this “broken windows theory” as a strategy for reducing mass incarceration.

Nothing could be farther from reality.

There is no reliable evidence showing that “broken windows” has reduced correctional populations or brought down crime. There is however, a vast body of evidence showing that “broken windows” has ravaged certain New York neighborhoods—namely those with high concentrations of poor people and people of color.

It is no coincidence that New York State has the largest network of Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) programs in the country and, that unlike other large states such as California, Florida and Texas, it has seen crime and incarceration rates plummet simultaneously—improving public safety and saving much-needed revenue.

New York has clearly reaped the rewards from the “Classification/Alternatives to Incarceration Act,” which was established in 1984 to provide funding for an array of ATI programs.

In addition, the Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison program, ultimately expanded to prosecutor's offices statewide, was established by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office to divert thousands of prison-bound defendants into treatment programs.

Decades worth of research documents the fact that people in poor communities of color are at greater risk of entering the criminal justice system due to the scarcity of prevention programs, early intervention programs and alternatives to incarceration.

There are also successful examples of creative programs and practices outside of New York that have promoted alternatives to incarceration.

For example, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot program in Seattle allows police officers to send people directly to treatment rather than arresting them. This is a promising model of what local agencies can accomplish by keeping people out of the criminal justice system and giving them access to the community resources they need.

Another example is San Diego, which has given police the ability to routinely refer kids in trouble to diversion programs, rather than funneling them into the criminal justice system.

The Seattle and San Diego examples suggest that we are beginning to see the value in investments in effective public safety programs while shifting away from the culture based on punishment that fueled our addiction to incarceration.

The Brennan Center report offers a valuable message about the power of local communities and their abilities to reduce crime and increase public safety while simultaneously reducing correctional populations.

We should demand that our elected officials and policy makers at local, state and federal levels find even smarter, more efficient, and fairer ways of safely reducing their jails and prisons.

It's a wise investment in people and in the communities where they live.

Kara Dansky is Senior Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union. Glenn E. Martin is Vice President of Public Affairs, Fortune Society. They welcome comments from readers.

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