While crime has been declining in New York City, the city has managed to pull off a “remarkable reversal of mass incarceration” that “was spurred by grassroots advocacy and the growth of responsive and reform-minded public officials at both the local and state levels,” says a newly published analysis. Authors Vincent Schiraldi of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Judith Greene of Justice Strategies partly credit the New York Police Department for a 66 percent decline in felony drug arrests, from 45,978 in 1998 to 15,507 last year. The study, released today, was published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter, co-published with the Vera Institute of Justice. It is titled, “Better By Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration While Increasing Public Safety.”
During the same rough period–1996 to 2014–New York City’s combined jail and prison incarceration rate declined by 55 percent, while the incarceration rate in the rest of the U.S. rose by 12 percent. Despite the fact that the city’s population grew by more than a million people during the period, the number of New Yorkers in prisons and jails dropped by 31,120.
The inmate reduction had a variety of causes, including the state legislature’s action in 2009 to soften the harsh Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s and to strengthen state “control valves” that could be invoked to shorten inmate terms. Alluding to similar reductions in prison populations in California and New Jersey, Schiraldi and Greene conclude that “the necessary elements for success have been bold reform agendas, organizational moxie, and powerful public engagement.” The authors concede that “enormous challenges remain” in reducing incarceration significantly nationwide, in part because “our prisons have become mental health institutions by default” and “sentences for people convicted of violent offenses are grossly excessive.”