How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?
Date:  02-11-2013

Vera Institute report relates how New York City police policies had an unexpected impact on reducing prison population throughout the state
How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?, a new report written by JFA president James Austin Ph.D., Michael P. Jacobson, President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice, and Inimai M. Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice, describes how New York City police policies that focused on arresting individuals for minor crimes had a major, and unexpected, impact on lowering New York State’s prison population.

According to the report, which is based on data from 1985 through 2009, the so-called “broken windows” policy, in which police stepped up arrests for minor crimes, was actually a key factor in reducing the number of inmates in prisons throughout the state. An introduction to the report states, “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. Other policies –like programs that stopped punishing people with prison if not necessary – also contributed to this population drop.”

How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration offers valuable lessons that states seeking to reduce their incarceration rate might consider adopting:

  • Theories abound about why the national crime rate dropped, but the New York experience shows that mass incarceration is not necessary to decrease crime.

  • 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.

  • Ending mass incarceration entails more than simply reducing prison populations. It requires reducing the entire correctional population – meaning the number of people arrested, in jails awaiting trial, in prisons serving sentences, and on probation and parole.

  • Federal, state, and local policies can work together – or against each other – to create a drop in corrections populations. Federal funding streams can be a key mechanism affecting the size of state correctional systems.

  • All criminal justice policies have costs and benefits that should be fully identified and weighed before implementation. This practice would be a marked shift from typical policymaking.
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