February 7, 2018

NYC's success in cutting crime

Open Democracy -For the first time since the 1950s, fewer than three hundred murders were recorded in New York last year. The number of manslaughters, rapes, assaults, robberies, burglaries, grand larcenies and car thefts also reached a historic low. In total, fewer than 100,000 of these serious crimes were reported.

Compare that to 1990, the worst year on record, when police tallied 2,245 homicides and more than 520,000 major felonies. A fivefold reduction in crime is a huge achievement, without precedent in the developed world. It is easy to forget that New York was once synonymous with urban decay and inner city violence.

Speaking on All Things Considered as the year drew to a close, Bill Bratton, who served as Commissioner of the New York Police Department from 1994-96 and 2014-16, was understandably happy to claim some of the credit. Police “began to focus on disorder, which had not been addressed at all in the '70s and '80s, and disorder is described as broken windows, quality of life, minor offences,” he said.

The effectiveness of ‘broken windows’ policing remains a matter of considerable debate. Crime rates have plummeted across the USA, a trend variously attributed to demographic shifts, legalized abortion, banning lead in paint and petrol, the advent of debit cards, video games, and a generation traumatized by the crack plague.

The latest statistics do debunk an argument favored by law and order conservatives, though: that rising incarceration rates explain reductions in crime. New York has reduced its jail and prison population by half, thanks to effective grassroots advocacy and progressive policy reform, while becoming the safest big city in America.

In 1991, almost 22,000 inmates were housed at the city’s notoriously violent Rikers Island jail complex. Last December’s average daily count was 8,980. State prison ledgers show an equivalent drop: in 1998, more than 47,000 city residents were confined ‘upstate,’ and by 2016 this had fallen to 23,000.

Nationwide, the number of people behind bars has barely ticked downwards. If other cities and states can follow New York’s example, we could be witnessing the beginning of the end of the mass incarceration era.

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