At the beginning of the new millennium, New York University sociologist David Garland coined the phrase “mass imprisonment” to describe the United States’ “rate of imprisonment…that is markedly above the historical and comparative norm for societies of this type.”
A 2014 report from the National Academies of Sciences echoed Garland’s bifurcated benchmark, concluding that that the United States, whose incarceration rate had quadrupled since the 1970s and was five to ten times the rates of European countries, had an imprisonment rate that was “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”
Using Garland’s widely accepted yardstick, the 2010s were the decade that New York City firmly signaled its exit from what is now called “mass incarceration,” a benchmark it will arguably achieve in the 2020s.
As New York City Probation Commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former senior advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice, and a researcher at Harvard and Columbia Universities, I have had a front-row seat to this phenomenon as it has developed and accelerated. New York enters the 20s as not only the least incarcerated, but also the safest, large city in the United States, with incarceration rates that are a fraction of comparable cities and approaching the rates of other western nations.
In 2016, my colleague Judith Greene and I examined decades of national, state and city data issuing a report entitled Better by Half to commemorate the halving of the city’s incarceration rate since its 1990s peak. We found that the city’s prison and jail incarceration rate had bucked our country’s imprisonment trends, declining by 55 percent between 1996 and 2014 while incarceration in the rest of the United States and New York State rose.
If the city, with a nation-rivaling 8.5 million residents, had been a stand-alone country back then, our incarceration rate would have been 41 percent lower than the rest of the U.S. and at least among the higher incarcerating countries internationally (as compared to dwarfing them like the rest of the US does).
During that same time period, the number of New Yorkers supervised on probation—often incorrectly thought of as an alternative to incarceration—also plummeted. Nationally, the number of people on probation or parole increased four-fold from 1980 to 2009 alongside the national growth in incarceration.
Meanwhile, a report I co-authored at the Harvard Kennedy School found that New York City’s probation population had declined by more than two-thirds, from around 68,000 to 22,000 from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s, right along with the city’s decline in both crime and incarceration.
While the Probation Department’s budget also dropped substantially during that time, the decline in its caseload was so great that, during my watch, we actually had nearly twice as much money per person-on-probation than in the mid-1990s. This allowed us to increase contracts for community programs (many staffed by people with lived experience) from two to 54 and open 14 small, and more decent, community-based offices.
The only correctional population in New York that is still mired in the era of mass incarceration is those on state parole. New York State sends more people back to prison for technical, non-criminal parole violations—like substance use or missing appointments—than every state but Illinois. This is the only population that is increasing in city jails (making up one out of seven people incarcerated in the city), where persons accused of violations must wait, often for months, for their cases to be adjudicated. That cost city and state taxpayers $190 and $359 million last year, respectively.
Furthermore, African Americans are incarcerated for technical state parole violations in New York City at 12 times the rate of their white counterparts, a pernicious reality that will need to be squarely tackled by state policy makers before the city can matriculate out of mass incarceration. Legislation, a report by the State Bar Association, and the #LessIsMoreNY campaign promise to tackle that thorny problem at the advent of the new decade.
As remarkable as the city’s incarceration-reduction achievements were between 1996 and 2014, they actually accelerated as the decade drew to a close.
In the summer of 2015, city officials came under pressure from the #CLOSErikers campaign—led by activists and many people who were formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island – to close the jail complex. The city’s jails had been sued over unconstitutional conditions by the United States Attorney’s Office and a steady stream of media accounts was detailing a deplorable state of affairs on Rikers.
The City Council established a commission chaired by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to look into Rikers’ conditions and make recommendations on its future. In the spring of 2017, nearly simultaneously, Mayor de Blasio announced his intention to close the jails on Rikers Island and the Lippman Commission recommended doing so.
Between April 2016 and February 2020, spurred on by these developments, the city’s jail population declined from 9,762 to 5,517—another 43 percent drop in a little under four years. This was likely due to a combination of continuing declines in crime, ongoing advocacy, relentless media coverage, hundreds of millions of dollars in city investments in community-based programs and, last month, bail reform.
When Rikers finally closes in 2026, officials estimate that the city’s jail population will be around 3,300, the lowest it has been since in 1920 (when three million fewer people lived in the city) and an 85 percent decline since its peak.
If the number of city residents in state prison continues its two decade decline at the same rate, by 2026, the city’s incarceration rate will be 188 per 100,000 residents. That would tie us with present-day Slovakia and put us amid several former Soviet-bloc European countries; still higher than most Western European nations but well below all U.S. States.
While efforts should always continue to reduce unnecessary incarceration and improve jail conditions, at that point in the not-too-distant future, New Yorkers can arguably say they live in a post-mass incarceration town.
Why does this distinction matter? Well, New York was a crime nightmare in the decades leading up to the mid-1990s, prompting dystopian depictions in movies like “Escape from New York” and “The Warriors.” Like much of the rest of the country, we originally hewed to the dehumanizing vitriol that stoked mass incarceration and stuffed our jails to and beyond the point of bursting.
But lately, we have discovered that we can have less incarceration and fewer victims simultaneously, and are now experiencing both in record numbers. That’s something that other places still relying on incarceration as the expensive and debilitating bulwark of their public safety approach should take notice of.
While no two jurisdictions are alike, perhaps other states and cities can take some solace from New York City’s experience and find that, if we can end mass incarceration here, we can end it anywhere.
Editor’s Note: Vincent Schiraldi will be one of the featured speakers Friday Feb. 21 at the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. The sessions will be livestreamed starting at 9am EST, available here.