NYC jail, prison incarceration rates drop by 50% as crime falls

New York City has accomplished an amazing feat - it's chopped jail and prison incarceration rates by over 50 percent in the last 20 years.

A new study being released Friday shows the city has cut the combined incarceration rate by 55 percent since 1996, while simultaneously reducing serious crime by a whopping 58 percent.

“Despite the fact that the city's population grew by more than a million people between 1996 and 2014, the number of New Yorkers incarcerated in prisons and jails declined by 31,120 during that time period,” according to the study, called "Better By Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration While Increasing Public Safety."

The decarceration rate was so dramatic that it led to a significant decrease in the overall number of people locked up statewide - even though the incarceration rates in the rest of state have increased over the same time period, the report found.

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It also bucked the trend nationwide - incarceration rates across the country grew 12 percent over the same time period, while there was a more modest reduction in crime, the study found. By 2014, New York had the lowest crime rate of the nation's 20 largest cities, and the second lowest jail incarceration rate.

"The notion of addressing crime by locking up more people is turned on its head," said the report's co-author, Judith Greene. "New York City is leading the way."

The study, which was based on state, city and other statistics, says there's no single reason for the dramatic downturn - it's the product of a combination of factors, including policing strategies, legislative, prosecutorial and court reforms, and grass roots activism.

"There's no home run, but lots of singles and doubles that have added up," said the report’s co-author, Vincent Schiraldi, a former city Probation commissioner.

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He said the rest of the country should follow New York's example.

"The whole theory of public safety for the last four decades was we have to lock more people up to be safer - and we cut incarceration more than anybody and we're safer," he said.

The study notes the Big Apple used to be a bad example for the rest of the country.

"New York was a metaphor for the urban decay confronting so many American cities. With the number of murders topping 2,200 in 1990, New York's jail population was bursting at the seams, peaking at nearly 22,000 inmates in 1991, more than double today's population. Similarly, in 1998, the number of New York City residents in state prisons peaked at 47,315, a number which fell by more than half to 22,580 by May 2016," says the study, which is being published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

The main reasons for the turn around are tied to the city’s efforts in the war on drugs.

It “flowed from — or at the very least, coincided with — a bottom-up effort to amend, repeal, and reverse the laws, policies, and practices that swept our nation into the era of mass incarceration- most particularly those involving the War on Drugs,” the report says.

In the early 1990s, the NYPD cracked down on street drug dealers, locking more people up while helping the public feel safer. By 1994, one third of state prisoners were doing time for drugs. Ninety percent of them were black or Latino, the report notes.

That helped lead to a major public backlash against the state's tough Rockefeller drug laws, and to changes in policing and enforcement.

Some of those cited as spurring the changes in the report aren't exactly revered by reformers. They include former Gov. George Pataki, a death penalty proponent who was opposed to parole for repeat violent felons, but wound up pushing parole reforms for those without violent felony records in 2004.

Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who lost his bid for re-election amid a swirl of allegations about his office using coerced confessions and other dirty tactics to get convictions, was cited for launching a Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison program to help drug users get treatment instead of jail time.

"DTAP participants were found to be 36 percent less likely to be reconvicted and 67 percent less likely to return to prison after two years," the report notes.

Greene called the DTAP program "groundbreaking." "It was one of the few impactful and successful reform efforts led by a local district attorney," and it wound up leading to similar reforms by prosecutors and court officials around the state.

Schiraldi pointed out the bulk of the downturn in incarceration happened during the terms of two famously tough-on-crime mayors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

"We cut incarceration more than anybody under Giuliani and Bloomberg. I wonder if Giuliani even knows that," he said. Schiraldi, who worked for Bloomberg at Probation, said Bloomberg was well aware of the downturn. "He was supportive of it," Schiraldi said.

The study credits one of Giuliani's police commissioners, Bernard Kerik, for changing the NYPD's focus on the war of drugs.

Once Kerik - who would eventually do time himself on corruption charges - took over the department in 2000, "misdemeanor drug arrests began a sharp decline," the study says. "The department felt it had other priorities and they could focus on other issues," Greene said.

Arrests went back up again after Bloomberg took office and put Ray Kelly back in charge of the NYPD.

By 2011, misdemeanor arrests were up to 84,250 - and calls by drug policy reform advocates were getting louder. About 40 percent of the misdemeanor drug arrests were for small amounts of marijuana.

"Commissioner Kelly responded by issuing a series of memos clarifying and liberalizing the NYPD's arrest policies for marijuana, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the issuance of desk appearance tickets in lieu of arrests for marijuana possession," the study says.

Mayor de Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, enacted further reforms. "From 2011 to 2015, the number of misdemeanor drug arrests plummeted by 50 percent," the report says, while the NYPD continued to keep the streets safe.

The courts also did their part. The average minimum prison sentence for a drug offense went down from 27 months in 2000 to 19 months by 2013, the study says.

For those who were already locked up, the state Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision launched a program to help some inmates earn GEDs, which helped cut down on recidivism, the report says.

The program, called SHOCK, “has successfully graduated over 50,000 inmates and saved New York taxpayers nearly $1.5 billion since its inception 28 years ago,” said DOCCS spokesman Thomas Mailey.

And the decrease in the prison population has allowed Gov. Cuomo to close 13 correctional facilities saving taxpayers approximately $162 million in recurring savings, the agency said.

The changes have also made a huge difference at the perpetually problem plagued city jail on Rikers Island.

"When I first came to New York in 1981, we had more than 20,000 people in Rikers Island. It's now below 10,000," Greene said.

Criminal justice reform advocate Glenn Martin, head of JustLeadershipUSA, said the report shows the large role activism plays in getting changes made. "It's a shift in culture," he said - and "it emboldens us to be even more audacious about what happened here."

That would include further cutting down the inmate population - enabling the city to heed advocates’ calls to shut down Rikers. “You can't close Rikers unless you cut the population in half,” he said.

He said the country should follow New York’s lead.

"This will help non-believers believe we can do something different - treat people humanely and not lose public safety," Martin said.

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