Less Cons, Less Crime


Violent crime continues to plummet in the Big Apple.  But contrary to conventional wisdom, so do incarceration rates:

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer of its citizens during the past decade. The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time.


"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it's ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York's correction commissioner for former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and now is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends worldwide.

"I can't tell you exactly why violent crime in New York declined by twice the national rate," he said. "But I can tell you this: It wasn't because we locked up more people."

The article notes that violent crime dropped less dramatically (or actually rose) in places like Texas and West Virginia, where ever-tougher sentencing laws have prison construction booming.

NEXT: Cornhuskers for Peace

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. If we could just get those cops to stop throwing up a wall of bullets whenever someone puts a car in reverse, we’d truly be safe. OK, that’s a cheap shot.

  2. There’s more than a little chicken-egg going on with this theory, but I propose that the most significant cause of the drop in crime in New York, and across the nation, is the revitalization of old urban centers that had been in severe decline since the end of World War II.

  3. Fewer Cons, Less Crime. (I know, I know, that’s a nit, but goddamit it’s an important nit!)

  4. Crusader, grammar is only a nit to nitwits. Preserving the language is a noble and important calling. Besides, you saved me from being the first to note the error.

  5. I think you’re correct, joe. Revitalizing a community can do wonders for that community’s social structure, and it should follow that crime would no longer be such an attractive option in that environment.

    I think welfare reform probably played a role as well, but to me that plays well with your theory. Part of revitalizing a community is breaking the dependency cycle, and New York City seems to have done it nicely.

    Now if they could just do something about rent controls I might be interested in living there 😉

  6. And you spelled “goddammit” wrong, so what’s your point?

  7. I don’t think welfare reform had anything to do with it. This town has gentrified so much that Newark and West New York just soaked up that segment of crime. There is a point about revitalization. People in million dollar lofts avoid crime usually.

  8. jf,

    I think you’re leaning a little too heavily on rational, incentive-based explanations of criminal behavior, when socio-cultural forces are more likely.

    Criminals don’t choose to become stick-up men instead of accountants because of a rational choice, but because it’s who they want to be.

    The cultural effects of welfare reform wouldn’t have revealed themselves quickly enough to explain the decline in crime during 2-4 years immediately following its passage.


    Statistically, the theory that crime stayed at the same level but migrated from some cities to other cities is unsupportable.

  9. Godammit, I always get that wrong.

  10. joe,

    You bring up a good point (as you often do). Unfortunately, I think in the process you dehumanize the criminals by basically saying “they don’t know any better” or “it’s society that forces them to be criminals.”

    Take a program such as midnight basketball. If you give kids an attractive alternative to being out on the streets causing mischief, are they likely to act as rational characters by taking it? Or, are such programs doomed to failure because they just want to be gangstas no matter what?

  11. jf,

    Don’t kid yourself that the population you grew up among would make substantially different choices than a similar cohort in the South Bronx cirac 1989.

    I don’t think the kids taking advantage of midnight basketball are being more rational than the ones who don’t. Value-maximizing rationality isn’t the only measure here.

  12. Now if they could just do something about rent controls I might be interested in living there 😉

    Unfortunately, rent control doesn’t have as big an impact overall as people think. (I read it here!) I think gentrification has a much bigger impact on rents than rent control.

    I say that as someone who pays through the nose for a tiny studio; but hey, that’s me.

  13. According to Freakonomics, the most significant cause for the dramatic drop in the crime rate during the 90’s was Roe vs. Wade. Suddenly, a lot of poor women living in the projects were able to get abortions. Maybe there was a rate of abortions in New York during the 1980s?

  14. “The theory that crime stayed at the same level but migrated from some cities to other cities is unsupportable”

    Fair enough. I guess when entire neighborhoods are displaced, crime just vanishes. Makes me wonder why we don’t just bulldoze bad neighborhoods.

  15. Cause and effect are often confused by intelligent people. It is not always easy or obvious to distinguish between the two. In a chaotic system like human society it is especially difficult. Such is the case here.

  16. Makes me wonder why we don’t just bulldoze bad neighborhoods.

    We tried that already, remember? It didn’t work.

  17. Lamar,

    You are quite right, and you’d think such an observation would be obvious and self-evident, but you have no idea how much trouble we planners have to go through to convince the public that the “slum clearance” strategy you descirbe doesn’t work.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.