“The New York crime miracle”?

Photo: Nom & Maic CC Some rights reserved

Around the country, crime and violence rates have fallen dramatically, even as prison populations keep growing.

But the state of New York is a different story, and its real twist is New York City. In the past twenty years, New York City’s crime rate went down, and so did the amount of people incarcerated. The state’s prison population went down by 17 percent from 2000 to 2009, and it was the decline in people going to prison from NYC that made for this drop. Now researchers are looking to NYC as a model for how to reduce mass incarceration. And one big factor is the change in the city’s policing methods, especially the adoption of  broken windows policies, like Stop-and-Frisk.

The Vera Institute for Justice just released a new study, How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model For Change? and Inimai Chettiar, Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center, introduces it by asking:

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? [Jacobson and Austin] 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.

Lots of people are asking these questions. The Brennan Center hosted a debate last week, where advocates, researchers, former police officers went head-to-head on some of these questions. You can watch the whole thing here, but these are some of the interesting points the speakers brought up:

•Glenn E. Martin, Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at the Fortune Society said, “Stop-and-Frisk should be used like a scalpel, not like a blunt axe.” He said that in communities policed with “broken windows” policies, the neighborhoods themselves are being treated like jails. He also brought up factors he felt that the Vera Insitute’s study didn’t take into account that could have contributed to a shrinking prison population, like alternatives to incarceration, or changes in demographics like declining birth rates, and less youth in NYC. Not to mention the advancement of security technology, or the waning of crack epidemic, or how different many communities are today because of gentrification, so that many people returning from prison can no longer afford to live in the city.

•Heather Mac Donald, John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research emphasized that though the police have a duty to treat people with respect, and they may have a long way to go in explaining many of their Stop-and-Frisk encounters, it needs to be emphiazed that “something is working.” She said that young men in NYC are killed at one quarter of the rate as those in Chicago, and that NYC’s crime drop has reduced the death rate of men in NYC by half.

•Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union argued that it’s not the increase in misdemeanor arrests that are responsible for the decline in the prison population, it’s the decrease in felony arrests. She said, “Let’s define broken windows. I have never associated broken windows with lower arrest rates,” and the room erupted in applause. She said that Stop-and-Frisk practices aren’t aimed at criminals, they’re aimed at people of color, and that only half of a percent of all the stops have yielded a firearm.  “Is it a deterrent? Yes. What’s it a deterrent to? To moms letting their sons go out on the street. To visiting relatives. To people feeling like they have rights in this city.”

So the “million dollar question” (or one of the many) for many people looking to NYC as a model is whether society can use stop and frisk without the collateral damage. As Chettiar writes, “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.”

What do you think? Should we be putting more resources into police and less into prisons? Does less felony arrests have anything to do with more misdemeanor arrests? What’s your personal experience with Stop-and-Frisk? And if you don’t have any, can you consider what living in your community would feel like if the police did have that kind of presence?

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