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Opponents of mass incarceration may have an unlikely friend in "Broken Windows."

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Colin Hedrick
Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy

In the past twenty years, the United States has seen an unprecedented drop in crime rates in almost every jurisdiction nationwide. However, going hand in hand with that drop has been a dramatic increase in mass incarceration in most jurisdictions. The natural conclusion is that increased incarceration is the cause of, or at least a necessary result of lower crime rates. The major exception to this conclusion is New York. The city's crime rate has experienced a longer and deeper decrease than the country at large, all the while the state's correctional population has decreased considerably. A new report released by the Vera Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice examines "Broken Windows" and the New York trends and concludes the mass incarceration isn't the answer or a necessary result.

The "Broken Windows" thesis was published by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982 and posited that there was a connection between disorder, fear, crime and the urban decay that had been playing out in America's cities for decades. Their proposed solution called for controlling disorderly behavior in public places generally, thereby significantly dropping more serious crime.

Amongst other things, the Vera Institute report, authored by criminologists James Austin and Michael Jacobson, focuses on the somewhat counterintuitive idea that "Broken Windows" leads to a lower overall correctional population. This conclusion is counterintuitive to the extent that "Broken Windows" calls for a higher level of misdemeanor arrests and enforcement. One would think that this would in turn increase the correctional population, however, the real gains are made in that the increase in misdemeanor arrests lead to a decrease in felony arrests. Low level enforcement reduces felony level crime, so while overall arrests may be up, the total stay in the correctional system is drastically reduced because the long term felony level crimes are much less common.

This report serves as reminder that policies like "Broken Windows" and "stop-and-frisk," while controversial do have a measurable effect on crime rates all the while helping to decrease the mass incarceration that is often decried as a regrettable side effect of current lower crime rates.

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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.