Despite Fewer Lockups, NYC Has Seen Big Drop in Crime

"The only people using these cells now are the directors and actors from 'Law and Order,' " Correction Commissioner Martin F. Horn says. (By Michael Powell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 24, 2006

NEW YORK -- The correction commissioner walks down a long row of cells painted blue, his footsteps echoing inside the massive Rikers Island jail block.

Every cell is empty, and he couldn't be happier.

"What we've seen in New York is the fastest drop in crime in the nation, and we did it while locking up a lot less people," says Commissioner Martin F. Horn, who oversees the city lockups, including barbed-wire-ringed Rikers Island. "The only people using these cells now are the directors and actors from 'Law and Order.' "

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer of its citizens during the past decade. The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time.

Nearly 2.2 million Americans now live behind bars, about eight times as many as in 1975 and the most per capita in the Western world. For three decades, Congress and dozens of legislatures have worked to write tougher anti-crime measures. Often the only controversy has centered on how to finance the construction of prison cells.

New York City officials, by contrast, are debating whether to turn some old cells in downtown Brooklyn into luxury shops.

"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it's ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York's correction commissioner for former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and now is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends worldwide.

"I can't tell you exactly why violent crime in New York declined by twice the national rate," he said. "But I can tell you this: It wasn't because we locked up more people."

Perhaps as intriguing is the experience in states where officials spent billions of dollars to build prisons. From 1992 to 2002, Idaho's prison population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

The debate about the degree to which the United States' record rate of imprisonment has driven down crime is more than a dance on the head of a statistical pin. FBI data released in September showed that violent crime -- rape, homicide and robbery -- edged up by 2.2 percent last year. That is far from the violent heights of the early 1990s, but Jacobson and other criminologists are concerned that a resurgence in crime could cast a shadow on an intriguing cultural moment.

In the past few years, legislators in such conservative states as Louisiana and Mississippi have passed sentencing reforms. Kansas and Nebraska are reconsidering prison expansion in favor of far less expensive drug treatment. The United States annually spends about $60 billion on prisons.

"Crime is down and people realize, sure, we can lock up more people, but that's why your kid's pre-K class has 35 kids -- all the money is going to prisons," Jacobson says. "There's a sense of urgency that for the first time in two decades, we can talk about whether it makes sense to lock up even more people."

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