Monday, January 28, 2013

Crime in the City

John Tierney has an excellent, substantial story from this past Saturday about the remarkable and thoroughly debated year after year decline in New York City crime. There is a lot of information here, for instance, New York City crime continues to drop even though there have been reductions in the police force whose expansion in the 1990s is credited with creating safer streets in the first place:
Elsewhere, studies have shown that crime drops when more police officers are hired, so it is not surprising that the expansion of New York’s police force in the 1990s by more than a third was accompanied by a drop in crime. But during the past decade, the force has shrunk by 15 percent, and yet crime has mostly continued falling.
The thinking is that if you have a physical police presence at "hot spots" -- areas of high crime -- you see significant decreases in crime citywide. The criminals don't just pack their bags and set up shop in a different neighborhood; in other words, crime is more spatial than characterological.
Nonetheless, the hot-spot strategy was initially met with skepticism by police veterans. 
“We assumed that if we hit one area hard, the crime would just move somewhere else,” said Frank Gajewski, a former police chief of Jersey City, who worked with Dr. Weisburd on the experiments there.
But Dr. Weisburd won over Mr. Gajewski and other skeptics — and also won the 2010 Stockholm Prize, criminology’s version of the Nobel — by showing that crime was not simply being displaced. Moreover, he and his colleagues reported a “spatial diffusion of crime prevention benefits” because crime also declined in adjoining areas, as the police in Jersey City had observed.
“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.”
After more than two dozen experiments around the world, criminologists generally agree that hot-spot policing is “an effective crime prevention strategy,” in the words of Anthony Braga, a criminologist at Harvard and Rutgers who led a review of the research literature last year.
There's more in Tierney's story; it's also an argument for rerouting money currently spent on incarceration back to policing. He traces the boom in prison building back to an article published in 1974:
New York, while now an exception to the mass-incarceration trend, also happens to be the place that inspired it. When New York State four decades ago commissioned an evaluation of programs to rehabilitate criminals, the conclusions were so discouraging that the researchers were initially forbidden to publish them.
Eventually one of the criminologists, Robert Martinson, summarized the results in 1974 in the journal Public Interest. His article, “What Works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform,” was soon known as the “nothing works” thesis. Dr. Martinson concluded that rehabilitation strategies “cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendencies of offenders to continue in criminal behavior.”
An outgrowth of the study was a consensus to eliminate parole for many offenders and to mandate long sentences determined by formulas rather than rely on the discretion of judges and parole boards.
Dr. Martinson wrote an article in 1979 recanting his “nothing works” conclusion, but by then it was too late. The trend toward tougher sentences continued, causing prison populations to grow rapidly in the 1980s throughout the country, including in New York. When crime kept rising anyway, sentences often were further lengthened.
My time in New York City, spent predominantly in the 33rd Precinct, was during the last several years prior to the expansion of the police force and the crackdown on petty crimes with the enforcement of a broken windows theory under Giuliani. I suppose what I saw while living in Washington Heights from 1988 until 1993 was the end of era.

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