• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Monday 20th August, 2012

The transformation of New York City, piece by piece

In the 1980s, New York had a reputation as a dangerous, crime-ridden city. The city government was in crisis, with severe financial problems. There was a sense that New York was out of control. Fast forward to the present day, and you see a city transformed. In just 20 years, it has become one of the safest big cities in America. Many onlookers want to know: What happened? How did New York do this? And can we do the same where we are?The Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI), a UK project of the New York-based Center for Court Innovation, has set out their take on the phenomenon in a compact publication called “A Thousand Small Sanities.” It tells the story of New York and offers one possible explanation for this remarkable transformation. There is no doubt that the situation was grim two decades ago. In 1990, New York clocked up 2,245 murders. Compare this to London, a city of similar size, which logged 136 murders in 2009. Other crimes – rape, burglary, car theft – were also at high levels. The city was dealing with open-air drug markets, extensive organized crime, and decaying neighborhoods. By 2009, New York had been transformed. The murder rate had dropped by 79%, with similarly large declines in all other serious crime. A national US trend of decreasing crime rates could not explain the massive size of New York’s improvements. Did New York’s courts drive the change by locking more people up? No. As crime decreased, so did the use of incarceration. In 1992, the NYC prison population was 21,000; by 2009 it was 13,000. Indeed, the CJI analysis debunks both right-wing and left-wing stereotypes about crime. These gains have not come as a result of stiffer penalties and more incarceration. Neither have they come from specifically addressing social problems like inequality, discrimination, and family dysfunction.Same ideas, new situations? So what parts of New York’s approach to crime might be helpful for other large cities? The CIJ does not claim to have a pre-packaged answer for why New York changed so radically, but the authors highlight how criminal justice reformers worked to change people, places, and process. This three-part focus could prove useful elsewhere. PeopleFirst is the way New York approached the people in the criminal justice system. Although the city reduced its use of incarceration, it did not get “soft” on crime. The police became more visible as the number of officers increased, and they cracked down on minor offending. Much greater use was made of alternatives to incarceration, such as community sentences and residential drug treatment, as well as “drug courts” and other non-traditional ways of hearing cases. New York is lucky to be served by a host of programs that serve as alternatives to incarceration. This “patchwork” of options has grown organically as new problems and possibilities are identified by reformers on the ground. With money from federal, state, and city government as well as from philanthropy and the private sector, the mixing of creative ideas creates a context for innovation and testing, which in turn leads to options that are more appropriate than prison for many offenders. PlacesSecond is an attention to places. Because a small number of places – neighborhoods, street corners, even particular addresses – generate a large portion of crime, the city invested in spatial technology and data analysis. This gave much better intelligence on the geography of problems across the city. It enabled targeting of neighborhoods with specific problems. Better data analysis was accompanied by two policing strategies: “hot-spot” policing, which increased police presence in high-crime areas; and “broken windows” policing, a zero-tolerance approach to lower-level anti-social offending, publicly associated with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.Others in the city’s criminal justice system (prosecutors, defenders, and the courts) have also applied the lessons about place. Community courts, for instance, have been one of the innovative ways that local people have been involved in activities to respond to and prevent crime in their own neighborhoods. At the same time, massive efforts were made by community organizations and businesses to improve the look and liveability of neighborhoods. The idea is that clean and attractive city streets send a message that the neighborhood does not tolerate lawlessness.ProcessThe report also highlights projects that have affected the informal processes that influence behavior. Some of these projects aim to increase informal social controls that guide what people see as socially acceptable. For instance, the community courts are thought to have increased informal social control in neighborhoods, so rather than turning a blind eye to unacceptable behavior, residents are more likely to challenge and intervene. A second important process is the way defendants are treated in the court process. Several studies have found that defendants who believe they have been dealt with fairly and respectfully by the courts reoffend less often.Exposing mythsThe report exposes some interesting, counter-intuitive points. Common wisdom suggests that a narrow focus by the police on crime in one location will displace the activity. For instance, the easy assumption is that drug dealing targeted on one street corner will surely move to the next corner – but this is not the case. In a similar vein, hard as it is to believe, there is growing evidence to suggest that a defendant's attitude towards a judge – whether they think they have been treated fairly – is a predictor of subsequent criminality. This collection of insights and examples is a reminder that there is rarely if ever a simple, single solution to problems with complex antecedents like crime. There was no grand strategy led from the center, or one single intervention that got straight to the heart of the problem. Rather, converging activities nibbling at the problem from all sides accumulated to transform New York City.Research and evidence has played a part in the New York story. Good data on patterns of crime helped with targeting, and many of the innovations have been tested with experimental evaluation and either scaled up or discontinued as a result. But evidence is only a small part of the story. Politics, money, legislation, charismatic leadership and many other factors – perhaps even a bit of chance and luck – led to New York becoming one of the good news stories of the 21st century.*********ReferenceBerman, G. (2012). A Thousand Small Sanities: crime control lessons from New York. Centre for Justice Innovation. http://www.courtinnovation.org/research/thousand-small-sanities

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