Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More Policing + Fewer Prisoners = More Public Safety

That simple equation is how New York (City and state) has reduced both crime and its prison population.  This fascinating New York Times article documents how crime has plunged:
As the American prison population has doubled in the past two decades, the city has been a remarkable exception to the trend: the number of its residents in prison has shrunk. Its incarceration rate, once high by national standards, has plunged well below the United States average and has hit another new low, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced recently.
And crime in the city has fallen by more than 75 percent, almost twice as much as in the rest of the country.
Whatever has made New York the safest big city in America, that feat has certainly not been accomplished by locking up more criminals.
So, what has been working?  In the 1990s, New York started abandoning the get-tough sentencing policies of the 1980s, scaling back its mandatory minimum sentences and opting for more police who policed high-crime areas called "hot spots" more frequently.  Cops cost money, but not nearly as much as prisons.  In fact, New York has been saving money:
Even as the city grew by nearly a million people in the last two decades, the number of New Yorkers behind bars fell by a third, to below 40,000 today.
If the city had followed the national trend, nearly 60,000 additional New Yorkers would be behind bars today, and the number of city and state correction officers would have more than doubled since 1990, said Franklin E. Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
By not expanding the jail and prison populations, he calculates in his 2011 book, “The City That Became Safe,” the city and the state have been saving $1.5 billion a year, more than twice as much as it cost to finance the additional police officers in the 1990s.
So what about that hot spot policing?
In city after city, researchers found that half of crimes occur within about 5 percent of an urban area — a few buildings, intersections and blocks, often near transit stops and businesses like convenience stores, bars and nightclubs. ...
Typically, a list of hot spots was identified, and then half were randomly chosen to receive extra police attention, like more frequent patrols. Other strategies were also used, like improving street lighting, fencing vacant lots or arresting people for minor violations.
As hoped, there were fewer crimes and complaints at the hot spots chosen for extra attention than at those that were not. And once police officers started to show up often and at unpredictable intervals, they did not need to stay more than 15 minutes to have a lasting impact. ...
Rates of murder, rape, grand larceny, robbery and assault declined significantly faster in precincts with hot-spot policing than in those without it.
It sounds simple, and it's been saving taxpayers a fortune in New York.  Experts are agreeing that if the choice is between more prisons (filled with people serving lengthy mandatory minimum sentences) and more cops, pick cops:
Dr. Ludwig and Philip J. Cook, a Duke University economist, calculate that nationwide, money diverted from prison to policing would buy at least four times as much reduction in crime. They suggest shrinking the prison population by a quarter and using the savings to hire another 100,000 police officers.
Diverting that money to the police would be tricky politically, because corrections budgets are zealously defended in state capitals by prison administrators, unions and legislators.
But there is at least one prison administrator, Dr. Jacobson, the former correction commissioner in New York, who would send the money elsewhere.
“If you had a dollar to spend on reducing crime, and you looked at the science instead of the politics, you would never spend it on the prison system,” Dr. Jacobson said. “There is no better example of big government run amok.”