a bird and a bottle

Crime is Down in NYC, and so are Incarcerations
November 27, 2006, 2:19 pm
Filed under: law, news, politics

(I’m back after my Berlin hiatus. Sorry for the sporadic posting. Hope you all had wonderful Thanksgivings. Regular post follows below).

The Washington Post reported the other day that crime is down precipitously in New York City, but it’s not because the city is doing a better job of locking people up. Instead, NYC has acheived lower crime rates by jailing fewer people.
Yep. That’s right. Turns out mass incarceration is not only bad for the communities it destroys, but it may be making for a more dangerous general society too. While it’s not clear that the city’s decision to focus on mental health and drug treatment and to incarcerate fewer low-level drug offenders is the cause of the city’s drop in crime, it seems like a pretty safe bet, particularly when you compare NYC’s statistics to other cities and states in which the focus has been on building more cells instead of cutting the need for those cells.

From 1992 to 2002, Idaho’s prison population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

New York’s numbers couldn’t be more different: homicide dropped 70 percent in the same period, and the number of people in city jails dropped about 33 percent.

No one argues that the city made concerted and selfless effort to empty its jails. Similarly, it is almost universally acknowledged that it’s not a good idea to send violent felons back out onto the streets withou serving any time. But the cells that are now empty at New York’s Rikers Island would have housed mostly people arrested for offenses related to drug addiction. All at huge cost to the state.

Instead of continuing down this inhumane and expensive road, New York (after too many years of Giuliani-era policing practices that led to hundreds of thousands of arrests for petty crimes) made a simple economic decision — jailing someone is much more expensive than providing drug treatment or mental health treatment. So providing drug abuse treatment or mental healthcare is less expensive for the state than incarcerating someone. It’s also less costly for communities, who usually bear the burdens (homelessness, joblessness, addiction, violence) of re-entry after completed prison sentences, which must often be completed with no state support.

What does this all mean? I think it’s a pretty strong signal that if cities are really worried about lowering crime and dealing with the problem of commnity violence and recidivism, they should be seeking alternatives to incarceration, especially state-supported drug treatment programs. A shift to this type of enforcement would allow for a more effective allocation of police resources and for a more humane and sensical approach to drug abuse and related offenses. Not to mention the end of prisons as millionaire-making enterprises.

via TalkLeft.


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