Crime by the Numbers

Frank Zimring
The City That Became Safe
(Oxford, 2012)

For most Americans, crime deterrence and prisons go hand-in-hand. The belief that we can make ourselves safer by locking up vast numbers of our fellow men has held special sway as an argument in our criminal justice discourse and policy for the past four decades. As a result, the United States has the highest rate of imprisonment of any country in the world. Yet, all too rarely do we actually ask if putting all those people behind bars is actually serving its desired purpose.

If mass incarceration works, then Louisiana, where I live, should be the safest state in the country. As of 2009, Louisiana had 881 prisoners out of every 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country and nearly 25 percent more than Mississippi, the state with the second highest rate. By comparison, the average across the U.S. is 502 prisoners for every 100,000 residents. And yet despite this over-reliance on the prison system, New Orleans continues to be the U.S. murder capital, with, on average a homicide every other day in a population of only 350,000. This hardly is inspiring evidence for Louisiana’s current criminal justice strategy.

So what can make places like New Orleans and other cities in the U.S. safer? In his new book, The City That Became Safe, Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, uses the unprecedented drop in crime in New York City over the previous two decades to rebut what he calls the “supply-side” approach to combating crime. New York City hasn’t become safer because there are fewer criminals on the street. Rather, the incarceration rate in New York has actually dropped along with crime. As Zimring writes, “the most successful episode of big-city crime decline in the 20th century took place in a city where increased incarceration was never a prominent feature of the era when crime went down.”

And a success it is. While crime has dropped around 40 percent across major U.S. cities over the past 20 years, the decline in New York, on average, has been twice as large. And it’s not just Manhattan that has seen its crime rate diminish: taking into account all seven major criminal offenses (homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, auto theft, and larceny), all five boroughs are safer, and by significant margins, than they were in 1990.

What accounts for this shocking decline? One of the most appealing aspects of The City is that Zimring, who relies almost exclusively on statistical evidence in his analysis of New York, is humble enough to admit that neither he nor anyone else can give a complete answer to that question. Using copious charts and crime data, he estimates that about 40 percent of the drop can be attributable to changes in police tactics, including the N.Y.P.D.’s clearing out of open air drug markets, hot-spot policing, and increased foot patrols and adoption of stop and frisks of suspicious looking persons in high crime areas. But that leaves 60 percent that can’t be fully accounted for.

Additionally, Zimring is highly skeptical of the “broken windows” policy, perhaps the most publicly recognizable N.Y.P.D. policy of the period. Broken windows emphasizes a heavy police crackdown on minor offenses, such as subway turnstile jumping. While the N.Y.P.D., especially during the reign of Rudy Giuliani as mayor, touted this policy as contributing to the crime decline, Zimring fails to find statistical support for the idea not only that the aggressive tactics work, but even that the N.Y.P.D. employed the policy all that extensively. Even more importantly, he is critical of the collateral impact of stop and frisks. He argues stop and frisks have only “marginal value” in crime reduction and that they are a “costly strategy,” especially on the psychology and physical well-being of the minority males who the searches overwhelmingly target.

However, even though we can’t know with certainty what caused the decline, we can say what definitively did not contribute to it. Bolstered by reams of statistics, Zimring combats every conventional American notion of what might have led to New York becoming safer. The city’s criminals haven’t fled to New Jersey. The city doesn’t have fewer young men (often believed to be the cohort who commit the most crimes) than when the decline began in the ’90s, either. And once again, fewer New Yorkers are being imprisoned than in the past. Even more interestingly, while the crime rate has dropped, drug usage in New York has remained relatively stable. Zimring rightly asserts that drugs and more violent crime don’t go hand in hand. The N.Y.P.D. has focused on pushing drug usage into private spaces and a result of this has likely been less drug violence.

Perhaps most importantly, though, for those who believe that crime is ingrained in the cultures of certain populations and an inherent part of city life, New York’s crime decline can not be pinned on a change in the city’s demographics. Manhattan may have gotten slightly whiter and wealthier over the past 20 years, but the rest of the city has not and the entire city is dramatically safer, not just Wall Street and Midtown. As Zimring states:

The 20-year adventure in New York City was, to be sure, a demonstration project of effective policing, but it was much more than that. It was a demonstration that individual and aggregate crime rates can change substantially over time without either removing or incarcerating larger number of active offenders. There were no major changes in the population and ecology of New York but big changes in serious street crime.

The City is a sober assessment of what lessons we can draw from New York’s crime decline. The book is not a polemic, nor a page-turner. Zimring’s writing style is dry and dense. But while The City might not have the readability of a bestseller, its conclusions should be incorporated into the way every American thinks about crime. Zimring writes, “the most important lesson of the past two decades is that very high rates of violent crime are not hard-wired into the populations, cultures, and institutions of big cities in the United States. Life-threatening crime is not an essential feature of American urban life.” Coupled with the ineffectiveness of mass incarceration, those are lessons that policymakers, especially those in Louisiana, should take to heart.

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