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The City that Became SafeNew York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control$

Franklin E. Zimring

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199844425

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199844425.001.0001

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(p.223) Appendix B The Invisible Economics of New York City Incarceration

(p.223) Appendix B The Invisible Economics of New York City Incarceration

The City that Became Safe
Oxford University Press

Chapter 4’s discussion of demographic changes in New York City mentions the relatively substantial declines in incarceration rates of New York City residents as a development that has not received much attention in New York City, New York State, or elsewhere. The chapter mentions some factors that help to explain the absence of newspaper headlines about correctional cost savings in New York.

But this kind of attention deficit disorder carries substantial costs. Not paying close attention to what doesn’t explain, predict, or prevent crime effectively can leave governments ready to repeat their previous mistakes when the next crime panic crosses the radar screen. As important, the identification of unnecessary or ineffectual strategies of crime control can identify where resources might profitably be diverted to more effective methods. One example of this type of comparison—missing to date from discussion of New York City—is comparing the costs of the city’s famous police expansion with its never-mentioned savings from incarceration.

Figure B.1 provides information on three different incarceration policies. Column B in the figure estimates the number of persons who would have been locked up from New York City by 2007 if the 1990 rate per 100,000 population in the city had held constant. The 12% increase would have expanded the total city population in jail and prison by 6,700 to just under 63,000. This constant incarceration assumption produces more than 17,000 additional persons in jail and prison than were actually confined in 2007 (Column B minus Column C).

Appendix B The Invisible Economics of New York City Incarceration

Figure B.1 Incarcerated Persons in New York City under Different Policies.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Annual Survey of Jails (jail); State of New York Department of Correctional Services (prison).

But this assumption is far too modest, because the 15 years after 1990 were a period of growing rates of imprisonment in the United States. Column D provides an estimate of incarceration from New York City that multiplies the city’s actual 2007 population by an expansion of the 1990 incarceration rate to match the extent which the aggregate prison and jail rate of incarceration grew in the rest of the United (p.224) States between 1990 and 2007 (65.3%). On those assumptions, the city’s prison and jail population would have grown to 103,808, almost twice the 1990 prisoners and more than 58,000 extra prisoners from the actual 2007 New York City total.

Estimating Dollar Cost Savings

There are a variety of different ways to estimate the monetary cost of a period of incarceration and therefore the cost savings when one less commitment is made. The most conservative cost estimate would simply calculate total public expenditures and thus represent public expenditures avoided. For small numbers of prisoners added or subtracted, the marginal public cost may be a pro rata share of the operating budget of the prison and jail systems. For a high cost system like New York, a $25,000 per person estimate would be modest, particularly when the need for a large prison system expansion might impose capital costs on top of operating costs. Using a $25,000 unit cost and the 58,778 total produces a cost avoidance estimate of $1.47 billion per year. If the marginal cost of an additional police officer is $100,000, the estimated prison savings have already more than paid for the maximum expansion of the police force and have saved twice the annual expense of the net expansion of the police in the city as of 2010.

Why aren’t cost savings even of this magnitude readily apparent, or even noticed? One reason is that different levels of government support different sectors of the system. The state government pays for prisons while the city pays for policing, so that the expenditures made and those saved don’t come out of the same public purse. Even more important than this, unless there are sharp actual declines in public expenditures, even the agencies that are saving the money might not notice it. All but 11,000 of New York City’s more than 58,000 persons not behind bars in 2007 in Figure B.1 were expansions avoided rather than the more visible reduction (p.225) of people in cells that used to be full and are now empty. It is only when the state of New York is compared to the other metropolitan states in 2011 that the full prison population impact of different policy trends over 20 years become visible.

So negative lessons are important to a rational political economy of crime control. And the poor children of single parents growing up in New York City who were supposed to necessitate thousands of new prison cells (but didn’t) are one of the happier lessons of the American present. But only if we notice.

The bad news about the failure to notice the cost consequences at the state level of government of city level expenditures is that the same problems—different levels of government paying for services and failure of non-impacted state governments to calculate the cost savings from avoiding changes that other jurisdictions experience—are not isolated phenomena in New York but are a chronic part of the political economy of criminal justice in the United States.

When state-level governments avoid cost increases that other states experience, they may not notice. And when city-level expenditures reduce the economic burden on state-level programs, there is again no obvious way that this good fortune can get sufficiently noticed at the state level of government to create incentives for the cost saving tactics to be continued.

The complicated political economy of police versus incarceration cost accounting thus requires attention from external sources—the federal government or institutions devoted to the study of intergovernmental economic impacts. (p.226)