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Free the Cops

by Heather Mac Donald

Broken-windows policing has lowered incarceration rates

Opponents of New York City’s proactive style of policing struggle mightily to downplay its most obvious benefit: the largest crime drop on record, concentrated overwhelmingly in minority neighborhoods. Now they have an additional challenge: ignoring the fact that assertive policing can also lower the prison population. If public officials want to decrease incarceration without increasing crime, a new study suggests, the way to do it is through more law enforcement, not less.

For over a decade, New York State’s prison population has dropped, while crime in New York City, the major source of that population, has dropped even more. Meanwhile, the national prison tally has continued to rise, leveling off only recently. The cause of the decline in New York’s prison population was a shift in New York City policing, suggest criminologists Michael Jacobson and James Austin in their recent report, “How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration.” Since the early 1990s, the New York Police Department has been paying attention to low-level misdemeanor offenses such as marijuana possession, trespassing, and vagrancy — a style of law enforcement known as “broken windows” policing. Misdemeanor arrests in New York City have risen over the past two decades, driving an overall increase in arrests, but felony crime has dropped, and hence so have felony arrests, with the result that people are being sent to state prison in far lower numbers. (Prisons house only felony, not misdemeanor, offenders; jails take in both.) The number of jail inmates and convicts under parole and probation supervision has dropped as well.

How did the entire correctional population fall, while arrests increased? This seeming paradox is the result of police officers’ interacting with the crime-prone population sooner rather than later. Instead of waiting for a felony to happen and making an arrest, cops now nab offenders for less serious crimes, which at most sends them to jail for a few days or weeks but interrupts the arrestees’ more serious criminal activities.

Some examples: The NYPD has been patrolling public housing for trespassers, who commit a large share of public-housing violence. Arresting a trespasser for loitering in a stairwell may avert a sexual assault in that same stairwell; the trespasser at most will be sent to the Rikers Island jail for trespassing, rather than to a prison upstate for rape. (Predictably, left-wing advocates and their elite-law-firm enablers have sued the department for its trespass patrols.) Booking a subway-fare beater for jumping a turnstile may fend off a robbery on a train. Pouring out the whiskey of someone who has been drinking on the street at 11 a.m. lessens the chance of a stabbing or shooting at 9 p.m., when the drinker and his crew are good and inebriated. A gang member spraying his tag in enemy territory today could well be shooting a rival tomorrow; if you can get him off the street for graffiti, you’ll reduce violence — and send one fewer felon to prison.

It’s not just misdemeanor arrests that abort greater predation; the NYPD’s embattled policy of “stop, question, and frisk” does so as well, though Jacobson and Austin steer clear of this even more controversial topic. Questioning someone who is acting as a lookout for a burglary might not result in an arrest, because there is not enough evidence of a crime in progress to support one, but that intervention will likely avert the break-in. Moreover, the increased likelihood of getting stopped and questioned on reasonable suspicion of a crime has greatly deterred gun-carrying among criminals, by their own admission.

Owing to the increase in misdemeanor arrests, misdemeanor admissions to New York’s Rikers Island jail complex rose over the past two decades, but felony admissions dropped even more, so the overall jail count decreased. The NYPD still sends huge numbers of people to jail — over a hundred thousand a year — but many are released in a week or two and do not have a large effect on the long-term population count.

It would be premature, however, to rule out incarceration as a factor in the drop in New York City crime. The prison sentences served by New York State felons increased over the past decade and a half and are now among the nation’s longest. These sentences keep violent offenders off the streets for a longer period of time, during which they cannot commit new felonies.

Nevertheless, it turns out that shorter deprivations of liberty can also lower the crime rate, if the response to an infraction is swift and sure, as the late social scientist James Q. Wilson counseled. Besides interrupting more serious criminal activity, intensive misdemeanor enforcement and proactive street stops send the message to criminals and law-abiding residents alike that the rule of law is still in effect in troubled neighborhoods and that the police are watching.

It cannot be overstated how painful is the dilemma that the Jacobson-Austin report poses for the anti-incarceration, anti-policing lobby. For the past two decades, activists and journalists have portrayed the NYPD’s policing strategies as a racist assault on minorities. Broken-windows policing penalized the poor, who had no choice but to violate public-order laws, the advocates said. Stopping and questioning suspects was race-based harassment. The only thing equal in fury to the agitation against New York’s policing practices, however, has been the crusade against what is often referred to as America’s “epidemic” of incarceration. Prison is, in the words of best-selling author Michelle Alexander, the “new Jim Crow” — i.e., an effort to resegregate the country. Both incarceration and proactive policing are said to cause what they purport to cure: By breaking up families and communities and arbitrarily branding virtually harmless individuals with arrest and prison records, the argument goes, policing and prison actually create crime and social disorder rather than respond to it.

Leaving aside whether this analysis bears any resemblance to reality — it does not — if broken-windows policing is an alternative to long prison sentences, anti-incarceration advocates should (in theory) revise their portrayal of policing’s costs. (The JFA Institute, which James Austin leads, has been a particularly vocal critic of incarceration; the Vera Institute of Justice, which Michael Jacobson heads, almost equally so. Their paper, co-sponsored by the even more left-wing Brennan Center for Justice, is not going to endear its authors to the advocacy world.)

Jacobson and Austin are not the first to note the relationship between New York City’s proactive policing and New York State’s lowered prison count. Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, spotted it as well, in The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control (2011), his groundbreaking book on the New York crime drop. Zimring explained more explicitly than do Jacobson and Austin how policing lowers incarceration, but when two of the most prominent organizations in the anti-incarceration movement second the analysis, it gains credibility.

Unfortunately, Jacobson and Austin backtrack from the progress that Zimring made in demonstrating why crime fell so sharply in New York. Zimring shows that only New York’s policing revolution can explain why the city’s crime drop has been twice as steep and has lasted twice as long as the national average. Jacobson and Austin resurrect traditional explanations, such as demographics and economic conditions, that Zimring has discredited. They also repeatedly imply, despite their protestations to the contrary, that the NYPD had an official policy of making fewer felony arrests, whereas the decrease in felony arrests was simply the result of a decrease in felony crime. Frustratingly, the book and the report offer slightly different counts of New York arrests and correctional populations — leading one to despair of the authoritativeness of crime data — and, like Zimring’s own numbers, Jacobson and Austin’s data are internally inconsistent (the drop in the city’s jail population, for example, is listed in one place as 40 percent, in another as 38 percent).

These are minor quibbles. At a time when New York’s proactive policing is under fierce assault in both federal court and the political arena, the broken-windows report is a must-read contribution to the increasingly strident and one-sided debate. It has been commonplace in anti-NYPD discourse to focus exclusively on the alleged victims of proactive policing — the people stopped on suspicion of criminal activity or arrested for misdemeanor offenses — and to ignore its most obvious beneficiaries: law-abiding residents of low-income neighborhoods who fervently support the police and who yearn for the same orderly public spaces and freedom from fear that residents of Park Avenue take for granted. Now, however, it turns out that even those alleged victims benefit from proactive policing. A strong police presence keeps individuals involved in “street life” from triggering the most severe penalties of the law by providing a surrogate for the self-control and parental oversight that they lack.

New York has shown that effective policing revitalizes cities and saves lives. Increasing evidence shows that policing can also transform the entire criminal-justice system.

– Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Are Cops Racist?

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