How New York City Reduced Crime and Incarceration

City & State

By Greg Berman and Julian Adler

The New York City jail population recently dipped below 9,000 for the first time in 35 years – down from a high of more than 20,000 people. In a related development, crime in the city has also reached historic lows. We now find ourselves on the brink of systemic change: the mayor, the City Council and the governor are all working (although not always together) to close the Rikers Island jail complex.

As the effort to close Rikers kicks into high gear, observers around the world are trying to figure out what has gone right in New York City. There are nearly as many theories as there are practicing criminologists: The decline of the crack cocaine epidemic, demographic shifts, legalized abortion, decreased childhood lead exposure, changes in police practice … all of these and more have been offered as explanations.

It would be exciting news if there were one simple answer, but that’s not the case. In a chaotic urban setting like New York City, it is next to impossible to pinpoint causation with any degree of certainty. The truth is that no single public official or thinker or initiative deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

The real story is closer to this: Over time, a constellation of strategies and agencies, often working without coordination, have helped make a difference on our streets and in our jails. Some of these strategies, such as the police’s use of technology to better target resources, are well-known; others have received relatively little attention.

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