A paper released today, Better by Half: The New York City Story of Winning Large-Scale Decarceration while Increasing Public Safety, suggests that quite the opposite is true. New York City’s rapid and well-publicized crime rate decline was coupled with a sustained and dramatic reduction in incarceration, allowing the state to close more than a dozen prisons and save tens of millions of dollars. New York City is now not only the safest big city in the United States, but also one of its least incarcerated.

The paper is co-authored by Judith Greene, executive director of Justice Strategies; and Vincent Schiraldi, senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and former New York City Probation Commissioner. 

“Not only does the New York story show that substantial reductions in incarceration are realistic and attainable, but also that safety can be improved at the same time,” said Schiraldi. “While prison and jail populations grew across the nation and even within the state of New York, New York City actually made an about-face on incarceration and crime. Cities can actually be safer with substantial decreases in incarceration, and states should follow the lead of this remarkable reform.”

The paper documents that during the period between 1996 and 2014, New York City’s serious crime rate fell by 58 percent, while the combined jail and prison incarceration rate fell by 55 percent. Despite the fact that the City’s population grew by more than a million people during this time, the number of city residents behind bars declined by 31,120.  In contrast, the same period saw the national incarceration rate grow by 12 percent, accompanied by a more modest decrease in serious crime of 42 percent.

“Based on the accomplishments in states with the largest decreases in incarceration, we know that a successful decarceration recipe includes bold reform agendas, organizational moxie, and powerful public engagement,” said Greene. “New York’s unprecedented reduction in reliance on incarceration has been a ‘bottom-up,’ advocacy-driven, community-focused strategy. When these ingredients include robust and sustained advocacy, we see that it is possible and realistic to reduce reliance on incarceration by half.”

The paper explores the grassroots advocacy and growth of responsive and reform-minded public officials at both the local and state levels that reversed the laws and practices causing mass incarceration – including those generated during the War on Drugs. Successful campaigns to reduce incarceration and abolish the harsh Rockefeller-era mandatory drug sentences were waged by groups like the Prison Moratorium Project, the Correctional Association and the Drug Policy Alliance.

“We are at a critical moment in time for Criminal Justice of ensuring that all of us are safe, improving relations between communities of color and law enforcement, and finding more ways to reduce the prison population while increasing economic opportunities for New Yorkers,” said Michael Blake, New York State Assemblymember and Fall Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. “We congratulate Vincent Schiraldi, Judith Greene, and their colleagues on their report as we determine ways to amplify best practices while also determining how people aren't incarcerated in the first place and have a smoother transition to return home.” 

At a time when America grapples with the challenges of and solutions to mass incarceration, the paper highlights lessons from New York City, combined with insights from California and New Jersey, arguing that it is possible to have both half as much incarceration and twice as much safety.

“The paper by Schiraldi and Greene shows that very large cuts in incarceration need not pose any threat to public safety,” said Bruce Western, Faculty Chair of the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management and former Vice-Chair of the National Research Council Panel on the Causes and Consequences of High Incarceration Rates. “In fact, New York City may now be in a virtuous circle where low incarceration rates and low rates of crime are mutually reinforcing.” 

The paper argues that decarceration is not likely to be motivated by top-down, technocratic proposals and elite consensus-building alone. Instead, the authors credit the bottom-up strategies in New York City that built powerful political demands for reform.

"This report, Better by Half, reinforces the critically important role of advocacy and grassroots organizing in cutting incarceration by over 50% while reducing crime in New York City,” said Glenn E. Martin, Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA. “It proves that we have to be audacious in our thinking and actions to end mass incarceration, and invest in the ideas and leadership of those directly impacted in order to make big victories possible. In New York City, the next bold step is to close Rikers Island Jail Complex and invest in communities. The NYC story has inspired JustleadershipUSA's mission, to reduce the US correctional population by half by the year 2030.”

The co-authors point to the organizations and service providers that successfully educated judges, prosecutors, probation officials, policy makers and the general public about workable and humane alternatives to locking up New Yorkers. The shift in policy and priorities is clear, for example, the New York Police Department reduced felony drug arrests by 66% between 1998 and 2015, even though drug use in the city remained stable during that time.

“Communities across the country are working not only for an end to the drug war and mass incarceration, but for systemic change,” said Lorenzo Jones, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. “Better By Half shows that with an informed, powerful base of directly impacted people, policy reformers, and community organizers, we can win real reform, change systems, and strengthen and secure safety and justice for all. This lesson is applicable across the country, and we hope funders, researchers, and policymakers in particular take heed.”

The paper is being discussed by the co-authors at a forum in New York today (October 28) co-hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Justice Strategies, and the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice. Other speakers include New York State Assemblymember Michael Blake; Liz Glazer, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice; Acting Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez; and Glenn Martin who was formerly incarcerated in New York and is now Executive Director of JustLeadershipUSA. 

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