Co-Written with Judith Greene (Director, Justice Strategies)

Link to the full report.

For much of the 70’s and 80’s, New York City was an icon for American urban decay, spawning dystopian depictions of the Big Apple like “Escape from New York” and “The Warriors.” Indeed, in 1996, homicides in the City peaked at around 2,200 and Rikers Island was bursting at the seams with 22,000 prisoners.

But this was hardly unusual in the U.S. context; the mid-1990’s witnessed an explosion in prison populations, three strikes and other mandatory sentencing laws, and prison construction vainly attempting to stay apace with the growth in the number of prisoners.

It’s what happened next for New York City that sets it apart from most of the rest of the country. From 1996 to 2014, the City’s combined jail and prison incarceration rate fell by 53 percent, while incarceration in the rest of the U.S. climbed by 12 percent. This leaves New York with the second lowest jail incarceration rate of the largest 20 U.S. cities behind only Wayne County (Detroit), Michigan, which is a largely suburban county.

This wasn’t a jail break or coddling of criminals by the City’s purportedly liberal politicians. The incarceration decline started during Rudy Giuliani’s time as mayor and has continued apace through the terms of Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio.

More importantly, the dramatic decline in incarceration has been accompanied by a 58 percent drop in index crime in the City. With half as many of its residents behind bars, the number of homicides in the City dropped to 350 last year— a sixth of the 1996 toll.

As advocates around the country— from the ACLU to JustLeadershipUSA to #Cut50— are seeking a halving of the U.S. incarceration rate, New York’s example bears several heartening lessons.

First, advocates and providers making what seemed to be outrageous demands clearly had a hand in reducing the city’s reliance on jail and prison beds. The relentless drumbeat of daily “retail” advocacy for alternatives to incarceration, along with the demands for “wholesale” policy changes to sentencing laws, combined to influence persuadable legislators and legal system stakeholders at every level, from declines in felony drug arrests by the NYPD, to greater prosecutorial diversion, to judicial leniency, to a reduction in probation violations, to ultimately, the demise of the most punitive aspects of the state’s mandatory Rockefeller-era drug laws.

And second, there may be more air that can be released from the incarceration balloon than many pundits and technocrats allow for. While some view calls to reduce America’s incarceration rate by half as idealistic, a U.S. incarceration rate of around 300 per 100,000 would still leave us more punitive than our Western allies and would result in an incarceration rate that is more than double the rate of most of our country’s history. As the New York City example shows, it’s possible to have half as much incarceration and twice as much safety.

About the author

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi is Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice and former New York City Commissioner of Probation.