Criminal Justice

How New York City reduced crime and incarceration

The city's remarkable success has lessons that can be replicated.

Brooklyn House of Detention

Brooklyn House of Detention BravoKiloVideo/Shutterstock

The New York City jail population recently dipped below 9,000 for the first time in 35 years – down from a high of more than 20,000 people. In a related development, crime in the city has also reached historic lows. We now find ourselves on the brink of systemic change: the mayor, the City Council and the governor are all working (although not always together) to close the Rikers Island jail complex.

As the effort to close Rikers kicks into high gear, observers around the world are trying to figure out what has gone right in New York City. There are nearly as many theories as there are practicing criminologists: The decline of the crack cocaine epidemic, demographic shifts, legalized abortion, decreased childhood lead exposure, changes in police practice … all of these and more have been offered as explanations.

It would be exciting news if there were one simple answer, but that’s not the case. In a chaotic urban setting like New York City, it is next to impossible to pinpoint causation with any degree of certainty. The truth is that no single public official or thinker or initiative deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

The real story is closer to this: Over time, a constellation of strategies and agencies, often working without coordination, have helped make a difference on our streets and in our jails. Some of these strategies, such as the police’s use of technology to better target resources, are well-known; others have received relatively little attention.

We believe that there are three underappreciated lessons to take away from New York City’s experience.

Stop crime before it happens

New York City is blessed with an array of community crime prevention programs, including dozens of youth development agencies and organizations implementing the Cure Violence model, originally developed in Chicago. In places like the South Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, nonprofits are attempting to halt conflict by employing “credible messengers” – people who have engaged in violent behavior in the past but have gotten their lives back on track. These organizations are treating violence like a disease, seeking to halt the spread of violence by educating the public and mediating conflicts on the street. Prevention programs like these are addressing neighborhood crime without requiring the kinds of over-aggressive enforcement and prosecution that helped fuel mass incarceration. New research by New York University professor Patrick Sharkey offers empirical support for the idea that community nonprofits can play an important role in improving public safety.

Do not go directly to jail

Another of New York City’s hidden strengths is its various programs that serve as alternatives to incarceration, which criminal justice experts Vincent Schiraldi and Judith A. Greene have described as “the envy of other cities.” These include programs that link mentally ill defendants to counseling, targeted therapies that seek to alter self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior and community justice centers that use restitution and social services instead of short-term jail sentences and fines. For example, New York City has a network of drug treatment courts that sentence addicted defendants to judicially monitored drug treatment. These programs have been documented to reduce both substance abuse and recidivism. New York City has shown that it is possible to change the behavior of individual defendants without resorting to lengthy jail or prison sentences.

Adjusting our attitude

A growing body of research shows that treating defendants with respect and decency can increase law-abiding behavior. Known as procedural justice, the approach serves as a powerful complement to reform strategies that connect individuals to social and community services as alternatives to incarceration. For example, researchers have shown that by improving defendants’ perceptions of the justice system, the Red Hook Community Justice Center was able to reduce recidivism in southwest Brooklyn. The idea here is simple: People are more likely to become law-abiding and comply with court orders if they think that the justice system is legitimate and that they have been treated fairly and decently. Building on this insight, the New York court system and the city of New York have recently made an investment in spreading procedural justice – rethinking courthouse architecture and offering special training to criminal court personnel. The National Network for Safe Communities, a research center at John Jay College, is now attempting to spread procedural justice to police departments around the country.

New York City’s reductions in crime and incarceration are remarkable achievements. They are also, arguably, underreported accomplishments. The media and advocacy groups tend to focus on problems within the justice system. At least in New York City’s case, this offers a skewed, and at times counterproductive, portrait of the criminal justice system, further undermining fragile levels of public trust in government.

Even as we attempt to address persistent challenges within the justice system, including police brutality, racial disparities and miscarriages of justice, we should recognize that there is a great deal going on within the New York City criminal justice landscape that is working. New York City is an international model of successful criminal justice reform. Thanks to the city’s investment in community-based crime prevention, alternatives to incarceration and procedural justice, we now stand on the brink of systemic change, including the potential closure of the notorious jail facilities on Rikers Island. And that is good news indeed.