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Unlikely Criminal Justice Reform: How New York City Reduced Arrests and Slashed Prisoner Populations

by Lonnie Burton

In what has been described as a "remarkable reversal of mass incarceration,” a newly-published report by Justice Strategies credited the New York Police Department (NYPD) for a massive decline in drug arrests that contributed to a sharp reduction in the state’s prison population. The study, co-published with the Vera Institute of Justice and released on October 28, 2016, was published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

The authors of the analysis, Judith A. Greene of Justice Strategies and Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, said the recent push by New York City (NYC) officials to reduce arrests “was spurred by grassroots advocacy and the growth of responsive and reform-minded public officials at both the state and local levels.”

The report described how the NYPD reduced drug arrests by 66% from 1998 to 2015, from 45,978 to 15,597 per year. During about the same period of time, NYC’s combined prison and jail incarceration rate dropped by 55%. In contrast, the incarceration rate in the rest of the U.S. rose by 12% from 1996 to 2014. The study found that NYC’s reduction in prison and jail populations came during a time in which the city’s general population grew by more than a million people. There were over 31,000 fewer NYC prisoners in 2014 than in 1996.

With the number of murders in New York City topping 2,200 in 1990, few could have imagined that the city would experience just 350 homicides in 2015. That number, combined with steep declines in other crime categories, prompted University of California law professor Franklin Zimring to call NYC’s reduction in crime “the largest and longest sustained drop in street crime by a big city in the developed world.”

Among the report’s other findings were that NYC’s decline in crime between 1996 and 2014 outpaced the national rate 58% to 42%. And by 2014, New York City had the lowest crime rate among the nation’s 20 largest cities and the second-lowest incarceration rate behind only Detroit, Michigan.

So what exactly was behind the success of NYC’s battle against crime and welcome trend bucking the national fervor of mass incarceration? The report found that the city, as the “sole driver of the state’s prison population decline,” had implemented a “remarkable” policy shift that was the principal factor setting the trend in motion.

While the “get-tough” policies and legislation of the 1980s and 1990s drove the nation’s prison population sky-high, some of those policies were also responsible for a decrease in violent crime starting in 1991. In addition, a shift in focus from minor drug offenses to violent crime enforcement under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik shrunk the NYPD’s narcotics unit by 66%. With less staff devoted to drug crimes and more diverted to more serious offenses, crime rates dropped across the board, the study found.

Also contributing to the reduction in NYC’s prison and jail population was the state legislature’s 2009 repeal of the harsh Rockefeller drug laws from the 1970s. Then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted draconian drug laws in 1973 which, among other things, imposed mandatory prison terms of 15-years-to-life for possession of just four ounces of narcotics. Intensified street drug enforcement exploded New York’s prison and jail population by over 10,000 prisoners convicted of drug offenses from 1973 to 1992.

Another major factor that drove up incarceration rates, which has since been wholly or partially repealed, was then-Governor George Pataki’s abolishment of parole for all “violent offenders” in 1998. Known as Jenna’s Law, the tough-on-crime policy was responsible for the construction of 20 new prisons in New York between 1988 and 1999.

The sweeping legislative reforms passed in 2009 included:

• Giving judges discretion to place offenders convicted of drug crimes into treatment programs and to offer second chances;

• Allowing diversion for defendants convicted of substance abuse-related offenses;

• Resentencing for prisoners still incarcerated on pre-2004 mandatory drug sentences;

• Giving judges the option to dismiss a case when the defendant has successfully completed a treatment program; and

• Extension of shock incarceration programs, increasing merit time for college participation, and establishing medical parole and other population-control options.

New York City also instituted several reforms of its own that reduced its local prison and jail population. The overwhelming majority of those locked up in NYC are pre-trial detainees (87% as of May 2016), and due to a recent focus on pretrial releases, defendants are now 74% more likely to be released prior to disposition of their cases than they were just 10 years ago. The Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), which screens and makes recommendations to New York City courts on defendants held for arraignment, works 24 hours a day, seven days a week in all five NYC boroughs. CJA uses a risk assessment tool to determine a defendant’s likelihood that he or she will return to court if released on their own recognizance.

A push for alternatives to jail sentences has also helped reduce NYC’s need for jail bed space. Jail terms, as punishment for misdemeanor drug arrests, declined by 18% – or 33,535 arrests – between 2011 and 2014. Diversion, treatment and home-based incarceration were all alternatives that city courts actively pursued to reduce the number of defendants sentenced to jail.

“The necessary elements for success have been bold reform agendas, organizational moxie, and powerful public engagement,” Schiraldi and Greene concluded in their report. While heaping praise on NYC’s innovative advances, the authors conceded that “enormous challenges remain” in reducing mass incarceration nationwide

“Our prisons have become mental health institutions by default,” they wrote. “And sentences for people convicted of violent offenses are grossly excessive.”

The report concluded that the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S. does not lend itself to easy “top-down solutions.” Rather, it will take “years of bottom-up advocacy, organizing, and public engagement to effect systemic change and promote more effective and humane solutions. But we are confident that the states already in the lead will continue to struggle with these challenges.”

New York, the report argued convincingly, is one of those leading states. 


Sources: “Better by Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration while Increasing Public Safety,” by Justice Strategies (Oct. 2016);

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