Prison Population Can Shrink When Police Crowd Streets
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.
“The United States today is the only country I know of that spends more on prisons than police,” said Lawrence W. Sherman, an American criminologist on the faculties of the University of Maryland and Cambridge University in Britain. “In England and Wales, the spending on police is twice as high as on corrections. In Australia it’s more than three times higher. In Japan it’s seven times higher. Only in the United States is it lower, and only in our recent history.”
Before the era of mass incarceration began in the 1980s, local policing accounted for more than 40 percent of spending for criminal justice, while 25 percent went to prisons and parole programs. But since 1990, nearly 35 percent has gone to the prison system, while the portion of criminal justice spending for local policing has fallen to slightly more than 30 percent.