Monday, January 28, 2013

NYC: Focus on Policing not Prisons

“The United States today is the only country I know of that spends more on prisons than police,” Lawrence W. Sherman, an American criminologist on the faculties of the University of Maryland and Cambridge University in Britain told the New York Times. “In England and Wales, the spending on police is twice as high as on corrections. In Australia it’s more than three times higher. In Japan it’s seven times higher. Only in the United States is it lower, and only in our recent history.”

Before the era of mass incarceration began in the 1980s, local policing accounted for more than 40 percent of spending for criminal justice, while 25 percent went to prisons and parole programs. But since 1990, nearly 35 percent has gone to the prison system, while the portion of criminal justice spending for local policing has fallen to slightly more than 30 percent.

New York City is the safest big city in America, and it is not just the result of locking up more criminals.

“The precise causes of New York’s crime decline will be debated by social scientists until the Sun hits the Earth,” Michael Jacobson, a criminologist who ran the city’s Correction and Probation Departments during the 1990s and is now the president of the Vera Institute of Justice told the Times. “But the 50,000-foot story from New York is that you can drive down crime while decreasing your jail and prison population — and save a huge amount of money in the process.”

The crime decline, which has lasted for two decades, has been so striking that some critics wonder if the police stopped reporting some offenses. The police vehemently deny that, and numbers have continued dropping even for crimes that are difficult to hide — homicides, most notably.

Policing, of course, is not the only possible explanation for the safer streets, reported the Times. A shift in demographics, the arrival of new immigrants, the waning of the crack epidemic, and other economic and social changes had an impact on neighborhoods in New York — and in the rest of the country, where crime also declined in the 1990s.

But the drop was much steeper and more prolonged in New York than elsewhere. And while researchers attributed about a quarter of the decline in the rest of America to the stricter penal policies, that explanation did not apply to a city that was locking up fewer people. Something else was responsible, and criminologists have been trying to figure out how to repeat it.

“The intellectual tragedy of the New York crime miracle is that it had no experiments to identify just what worked,” Dr. Sherman told the Times.

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