How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?

January 30, 2013

Over the last two decades, crime and violence plummeted dramatically in New York City. Beginning in the 1990s, the New York Police Department shifted its policing practices, implementing a “broken windows” policing strategy which has morphed into the now infamous “stop-and-frisk” practices. During this same time period, the entire incarcerated and correctional population of the City – the number of people in jails and prisons, and on probation and parole – dropped markedly. New York City sending fewer people into the justice system reduced mass incarceration in the entire state.

In this report, leading criminologists James Austin and Michael Jacobson take an empirical look at these powerful social changes and any interconnections. Examining data from 1985 to 2009, they conclude that New York City’s “broken windows” policy did something unexpected: it reduced the entire correctional population of the state. As the NYPD focused on low-level arrests, it devoted fewer resources to felony arrests. At the same time, a lowered crime rate – as an additional factor – meant that fewer people were committing felonies.

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Foreword by Inimai Chettiar

Several remarkable things have happened in New York’s crime and crime policy over the past 20 years. Some of these changes have been very visible, and others less so.

As in the rest of the country, crime and violence in the state plummeted dramatically. New York City reported the largest decline in crime. Meanwhile, the New York Police Department shifted its policing practices beginning in the 1990s, starting with the implementation of “broken windows” policing and morphing into the now infamous “stop-and-frisk” practices. These practices focus law enforcement resources on petty crimes or violations.

During this same time period, the entire incarcerated and correctional population of the City – the number of people in jails and prisons, and on probation and parole – dropped markedly. New York City sending fewer people into the justice system reduced mass incarceration in the entire state. This change was much less publicly noticed but just as noteworthy as the other two shifts. Though other states have decreased their prison populations, New York is the first state documented to have decreased its entire correctional population.

Are there connections between these three shifts – a decrease in crime, a decrease in the correctional population, and a sharp increase in controversial police practices? What factors contributed to these shifts? What about the costs of these shifts? Have they been evaluated and weighed against the benefits?

In this report, leading criminologists James Austin and Michael Jacobson take an empirical look at these powerful social changes and any interconnections. Examining data from 1985 to 2009, they conclude that New York City’s “broken windows” policy did something unexpected: it reduced the entire correctional population of the state. As the NYPD focused on low-level arrests, it devoted fewer resources to felony arrests. At the same time, a lowered crime rate – as an additional factor – meant that fewer people were committing felonies.

This combination led to fewer felony arrests and therefore fewer people entering the correctional system. Other policies – like programs that stopped punishing people with prison if not necessary – also contributed to this population drop.

New York’s drop in the correctional population was almost derailed in 1994 when the federal government paid states to create laws increasing prison sentences. Congress used the power of the purse to pull states in this direction in spite of evidence showing that increased prison time does not decrease crime or recidivism. The drop in New York’s corrections population would have occurred more quickly had the state not enacted such laws and increased prison stays.

This report poses a host of difficult questions for those who defend “broken windows” policing as well as those who find fault with it. Though the New York strategy identified by Austin and Jacobson has benefits, it also has costs. Focusing police resources on petty crimes, predominantly in neighborhoods of color, creates a host of economic and social costs for those arrested and their families. At the same time, this move actually contributed to a decrease in mass incarceration.

The data in this report tells us a lot, but there are still questions. The increase in low-level arrests did not bring down the correctional population; rather, the decrease in felony arrests did. Had the number of misdemeanor arrests decreased, the correctional population would have declined more steeply. To what extent New York City’s policing strategy contributed to the drop in the crime rate is a complex question unanswered by the data in this report.

This report also does not evaluate the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy. It analyzes data in years before this practice became systemic. It also does not analyze the effects of the reforms to the notorious Rockefeller drug laws, since those reforms were enacted after the documented drop in correctional population.

Austin and Jacobson’s study comes at a critical juncture, when the United States is starting to reconsider its crime policy. With 2.3 million people behind bars and more than 25 percent of the country with criminal records, mass incarceration has become a national epidemic. Half of the people in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses; half the people in federal prisons are there for drug offenses. At least 30 percent of new prison admissions are for violations of parole; and more than 20 percent of those incarcerated have not been convicted and are simply awaiting trial.

In a policy area historically marked by rancor and recrimination, Austin and Jacobson offer something vital to lawmakers and advocates: facts. As state and federal governments begin to discuss how to reduce their incarcerated populations, this report offers empirical data to evaluate one model for change. The New York experience provides some vital lessons:

  • Theories abound about why the national crime rate dropped, but the New York experience shows that mass incarceration is not necessary to decrease crime.
  • Police practices have a monumental impact on mass incarceration. The police are almost always the first point of contact between an individual and the criminal justice system.
  • Ending mass incarceration entails more than simply reducing prison populations. It requires reducing the entire correctional population – meaning the number of people arrested, in jails awaiting trial, in prisons serving sentences, and on probation and parole.
  • Federal, state, and local policies can work together – or against each other – to create a drop in corrections populations. Federal funding streams can be a key mechanism affecting the size of state correctional systems.
  • All criminal justice policies have costs and benefits that should be fully identified and weighed before implementation. This practice would be a marked shift from typical policymaking.

We hope this report will help lawmakers and advocates develop rational and effective criminal justice policies that keep Americans safe while shrinking the widening net of mass incarceration.


How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?