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New York has all it needs to reverse the crime crisis except leadership

New York state had a violent-crime rate of 1,180.9 per 100,000 and a murder rate of 14.5 per 100,000 in 1990. By 2015, those measures had plummeted to 379.7 and 3.1. That achievement is even more eye-popping when one considers that serious violent crime was (and remains) concentrated in small slices of the state’s urban enclaves, among some of its least-advantaged residents.

Gallons of ink have been spilled over the question of how the victory was achieved. Well, in the lead-up to that win, New York took more aggressive approaches to policing and criminal-justice policy — approaches the state’s new “progressive” elite abhor, writing the success off as coincidence or arguing that the massive public-safety gains weren’t worth the costs of aggressive law enforcement.

New Yorkers — not just here in the Big Apple but also in Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany and Rochester — have seen safety and public order deteriorate the last few years. Again, progressive policymakers and reform advocates would have us believe the decline has nothing to do with the decidedly less aggressive approaches to policing and (especially) criminal-justice policy taken throughout the state over the last decade.

That less-aggressive posture is evidenced by: declines in the state prison and jail populations, declines in the state’s felony-arrest numbers, declines in stop activity for departments like the NYPD, declines in the shares of felony arrests resulting in both convictions and incarcerations and increases in the share of felony arrests resulting in dismissals.

Syracuse police detectives and officers
New Yorkers across the state have seen safety and public order deteriorate the last few years.
Charlie Miller/The Post-Standard/AP

That these enforcement measures uniformly show lowered costs of committing crime (or higher law-enforcement costs) is no accident. The last several years have been marked by a slew of policy changes explicitly aimed at decarceration and depolicing as ends in themselves to be pursued at top speed.

In 2019, the state passed significant reforms to bail and discovery laws, making it significantly more likely defendants would be released while their cases pend and significantly more burdensome for prosecutors to pursue those cases, thanks to resource-draining rules regarding the materials that must be acquired and turned over to defense attorneys to keep a criminal case alive.

In 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a 10-bill police-reform package into law, which, among other things, criminalized the use of certain restraint techniques and broadened the attorney general’s authority to prosecute police officers involved in fatal uses of force. Last year, the state enacted its parole reforms that made it significantly more difficult to incarcerate convicts accused of violating their parole’s terms.

Before all that, the state made significant changes to how it does juvenile justice, making it significantly more likely that 16- and 17-year-old defendants would have their cases end up in family court, reducing the likelihood of lengthy incarceration for even serious violent crimes. Before that was the 2009 rollback of the state’s Rockefeller drug laws. And we haven’t even gotten to the local reform initiatives, the elections of “progressive” prosecutors or the police recruitment and retention crises that as of October had the NYPD on track to lose some 4,000 officers by year’s end.

Here’s the good news: Decisive action on the part of state and local leaders can help reestablish order and safety on New York’s streets. How? By reorienting their approaches to policing and criminal justice around a mission of crime control rather than one of decarceration and depolicing for its own sake.

Doing this right means relearning the valuable lessons gleaned during the state’s remarkable crime decline — lessons that illustrate the value of proactive, data-driven policing backed by criminal-justice policies with real teeth. In other words (counterintuitive though it may sound), New York can move forward on the safety front in part by looking backward. Here’s hoping those in the driver’s seat care enough to look in their rear-view mirror and have the wisdom to turn around.

Rafael A. Mangual is the Nick Ohnell fellow and head of research for policing and public safety at the Manhattan Institute. Adapted from “The Next New York: Renewing and Reforming the Empire State,” a project of the Empire Center at 

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