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New York: Increased Incarceration Had Limited Effect on Reducing Crime for Over Two Decades

Report Supports Further Reforms to Reduce New York’s Prison Population – and Proves This Can Be Achieved Without Added Crime.

February 12, 2015

Since 1990, increased incarceration had a limited impact on reducing crime nationwide, concludes a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In What Caused the Crime Decline?, a team of economic and criminal justice researchers examine over 40 years of data, gathered from 50 states and the 50 largest cities.

The report takes a close look at New York, where state imprisonment climbed steadily in the 1980s and 1990s, due in part to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s 1973 “Rockefeller Drug Laws.” These laws aimed to combat rising drug use and crime by limiting judicial discretion in sentencing and enacting mandatory minimum penalties. The state’s prison population rose steadily, peaking in 1999 at 72,584 inmates. In the last decade, however, the Empire State has reversed its incarceration trend dramatically, dropping its prison population by 26 percent since 1999. The state was able to close seven facilities in 2011. New York spent $2.918 billion on state corrections in 2013. New York imprisons its citizens at a lower rate than the U.S. at large. As of 2013, New York imprisons 273 people per 100,000, compared to 496 for the U.S.

The Center will host a briefing call today at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the report’s findings. Dial In information: 1–800–514–0831; Confirmation Number: 38955210

Nationwide and New York-specific findings are summarized below:

  • Crime: Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. crime in New York dropped from its height in 1980 to 2013 by 68 percent. And the national crime rate was cut in half.
  • Incarceration: Increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. It had some effect, likely in the range of 0 to 10 percent, on reducing crime in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, increased incarceration had a negligible effect on crime. The effectiveness of increased incarceration in New York steadily declined through the early 1990s. By around 1995, when the prison population tripled to 68,486, the effectiveness of increased incarceration had dropped significantly. By 2013, New York’s prison population declined to 53,550 with the effect of incarceration on crime remaining close to zero. A number of states, including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, have successfully reduced their prison populations while crime continues to fall.
  • Other Factors: Increased numbers of police officers, some data-driven policing techniques, changes in income, decreased alcohol consumption, and an aging population played a role in the crime decline. In particular, the report finds CompStat is associated with a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime. First introduced in New York City in 1994, CompStat became widely implemented in American cities. The report also includes new information on the effects of unemployment, the death penalty, and other theories on crime.

“Some have argued that despite the immense social and fiscal costs of America’s mass incarceration system, it has succeeded at reducing crime,” said report co-author Oliver Roeder. “But the data tells a different story: if reducing crime is the end goal of our criminal justice system, increased incarceration is a poor investment.”

 “This report amplifies what many on the left and right have come to realize in recent years: mass incarceration isn’t working,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “A better use of resources would be improving economic opportunities, supporting 21st century policing practices, and expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs, all of which have proven records of reducing crime, without incarceration’s high costs.”

“This groundbreaking empirical analysis from the Brennan Center shows that, on examination, the easy answers do not explain incarceration’s effect on crime,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, in the Foreword. “This report presents a rigorous and sophisticated empirical analysis performed on the most recent, comprehensive dataset to date.”

“New York has eliminated mandatory sentences for some drug offenses and taken other promising steps to reduce prison populations,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, co-author of the report. “But, this report’s findings support further reforms to reduce New York’s prison population – and prove this can be achieved without added crime.”

Click here to read the full report, What Caused the Crime Decline?

Read about the crime decline in California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

Click here to read more about the Brennan Center’s work to improve the criminal justice system.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292–8381 or