Op-Eds


How to Stop Urban Crime Without Jail Time

By Franklin E. Zimring, The Wall Street Journal

Recently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the latest crime statistics for New York City, numbers that capped what he called the "safest decade in recorded city history."

The dramatic drop in New York's crime rate has become a phenomenon that its citizens take for granted. Between 1990 and 2011, the homicide rate in the city dropped 80%, the robbery rate fell 83% and the burglary rate was down by 86%. Auto theft has been banished to the endangered-species list, with a current rate of about 6% of the 1990 level. Nor is this profound change just the wishful thinking of police statisticians; it has been confirmed by independent measures such as auto-insurance claims and data from other levels of government.

The rest of the country also experienced a decline in crime over the 1990s, but New York's was twice as large and has lasted twice as long. So what has the city done differently? Rather than focus on imprisonment, New York has hired more police officers and changed its policing strategy.

The results of this experiment contradict four decades of crime-control orthodoxy. Since 1971, the U.S. prison population has grown from just over 200,000 to 1.5 million. When adjusted for population growth, the rate of imprisonment has increased 400%.

This dependence on incarceration was linked to the belief that street crime is committed by persistent "high-rate" offenders who will continue to offend if they are not locked up. As the thinking goes, the police cannot prevent much crime because they can't be everywhere at all times. Persistent offenders will always find a place and a time to rob and assault.

New York's success against crime over the past two decades has proved the wrongheadedness of the "incapacitation or nothing" strategy. As it turns out, when a police patrol prevents a robbery on 125th Street on Tuesday night, opportunistic robbers don't just find other victims on 140th Street, or try again on Wednesday night. The factors that combine to produce a mugging are situational and contingent, so if you prevent Tuesday's robbery on 125th Street, that's probably one less robbery for the year.

From 1990 to 2009, while the rest of the nation increased its rate of incarceration by 65%, New York City decreased its prison and jail rates by 28%. If the city had instead followed the national trend, it would have locked up an additional 58,000 persons at an annual cost of well over $2 billion.

But the trick for New York wasn't just hiring more officers. The city also implemented new tactics. As part of its CompStat system, it combined mapping and the analysis of crime statistics to target "hot spots" by concentrating patrol, detective and narcotics units. Hours were shifted so that more officers were working at night, when shootings peaked. Open-air drug markets were shut down, which didn't significantly reduce drug sales but did eliminate 90% of drug-related killings, which usually involve turf conflicts.

This strategy should not be confused with the much-discussed "broken windows" approach, which New York has not consistently used. "Broken windows" emphasizes maintaining a visible police presence in marginal areas of crime; it focuses on violations related to public order, like prostitution, public gambling and vandalism.

New York City has made arrests for minor crimes part of its successful strategy, but the rationale has been different from "broken windows" thinking. When serious bad guys get nabbed for a minor crime, it provides an opportunity to check for outstanding warrants on them and get them off the streets. In the phrase of Jack Maple, New York's former deputy police commissioner, it's a strategy for catching "the sharks, not the dolphins."

Another welcome finding from New York is that the new policing strategy has discouraged repeat offenders. In 1990, among all the prisoners from New York City released from state prison, a full 28% were convicted of another felony within three years. But as the general crime rate went down, so did the crime rate of released offenders. By 2006, their three-year reconviction rate had dropped to 10%.

New York's anticrime record has a lot to teach the nation. Over the past 20 years, the city has seen no major changes in the factors so often cited as the "root causes" of crime. Unemployed young men, single-parent families, educational problems, illegal drug use—they all remain. Other cities are now starting to implement policies similar to CompStat, and the preliminary indications are that New York's success is contagious. It's a new chapter for urban life in America.

1/28/2012