New York City’s incarceration rate fell by more than 50 percent over the last two decades, even as the national incarceration rate rose 12 percent, according to a new study.
The report, published in the journal Federal Sentencing Reporter, found New York City residents incarcerated in state prisons peaked at 47,315 in 1998. By May 2016, that number had fallen to 22,580 inmates.
The report’s researchers attribute the dramatic decline to three things: changes in the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws; more effective rehabilitation programs and a shift in attitudes among police officers and judges. Between 1996 and 2014, the city’s rate of property crimes and violent offenses also declined 58 percent.
“The old notion that locking up more people is the way to reduce crime is—if that ever was true—it hasn’t been true for quite a while,” said Judith A. Greene, study co-author and director of Justice Strategies, a criminal justice research organization.
Greene has worked in criminal justice since the 1970s and witnessed the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s during “tough on crime” mayoral regimes. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, some of the most notorious policies from the 1970s, imposed mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years or more in some cases for drug sale and possession.
Over the last 20 years, social activism and pressure from advocacy groups helped turn the tide toward reducing incarceration in New York City.
In 2009, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were rolled back, but even before official legislative action took place, the city’s police force moved away from felony drug arrests, reducing them by 66 percent.
Judges also began to see the benefits in the city’s network of rehabilitation programs, said Vincent Schiraldi, study co-author and Harvard Kennedy School senior fellow. By 2014, New York had closed 13 prisons and directed $24 million to communities affected by prison closures.
“The rest of the country doesn’t have this sort of massive cadre of alternatives that are banging on the courthouse door every day saying, ‘Don’t lock that guy up. Don’t lock that guy up,’” said Schiraldi, who served as New York City Probation Commissioner in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. But he emphasized the change did not happen overnight.
Only two other states, New Jersey and California, made similar strides in reducing incarceration rates across the same time period. In contrast, between June 1995 and December 2014, the total number of incarcerated individuals at federal and state prisons rose from 1.1 million to more than 1.5 million, according to Department of Justice statistics.
“We hope this will encourage policy makers and elected officials and advocates and activists in other states to take a look at what’s going on, not just in New York, but also in the other states that are really making progress so that the cost—the human and fiscal cost—can be averted,” Judith A. Greene said.
New York City also had an easier time reducing its incarceration rate than some states because it started with such a large number of people behind bars, said Christopher Wildeman, a Cornell University professor who studies the impact of incarceration on families and spouses.
“New York State had a lot of low-hanging fruit,” he said.
Keeping low-level drug offenders out of the system can have a major impact, but Wildeman said if the culture of imprisonment in the U.S. is going to change permanently, much more needs to be done to address how states deal with violent offenders.
Plus, although overall incarceration rates went down dramatically, incarceration in New York still disproportionately affects people of color. The percentage of people sent to prison from New York City is overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic—about 88 percent as of May 2016, down from about 92 percent in 1992, according to the study.