Now that the United States has the world’s highest reported rate of incarceration, many criminologists are contemplating another strategy. What if America reverted to the penal policies of the 1980s? What if the prison population shrank drastically? What if money now spent guarding cellblocks was instead used for policing the streets?
In short, what would happen if the rest of the country followed New York City’s example?
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.
From a NYTimes article studying New York City's success in both shrinking its prison population and lowering crime. As criminologist Lawrence Sherman notes in the article, the U.S. is the only country he knows of that spends more on incarceration than police. America now has a fifth of the world's prisoners.
One specific policing strategy that has yielded fruits is hot-spot policing, or focusing less on individual criminals but instead on areas where they tend to work.
“Crime doesn’t move as easily we thought it did,” Mr. Gajewski said. “If I’m a robber, I want to be in a familiar, easily accessible place with certain characteristics. I need targets to rob, but I don’t want people in the neighborhood watching me or challenging me. Maybe I work near a bus stop where there are vacant buildings or empty lots. If the police start focusing there, I can’t just move to the next block and find the same conditions.”
I wish San Francisco would spend more on police. For a few months, I worked at an office in SOMA that required me to walk through some of its sketchier blocks, and even as a man I didn't feel comfortable walking home late at night. Even during the daytime I'd sometimes encounter some crazy, scary characters, from an old bearded man who would curse me out for no reason to a gaunt, pale woman who often smoked a crack pipe and who could've passed for an extra on American Horror Story: Asylum.
Just in the past year, five of my friends have had their car windows smashed in and items stolen from their car while parked on the streets of San Francisco. Small sample size, sure, but I felt safer in Manhattan than I do in San Francisco. It honestly feels like San Francisco has just decided to let parts of the Tenderloin be our Hamsterdam.
We need to create more jobs anyhow, I'd be willing to take lower incarceration to free funds to hire more police.