Recent reforms to New York City's criminal justice system could serve as a model for changes in Britain, according to a British commission examining options for prison reform in the 21st Century.
In the report released Monday, titled "Lessons from America," the Commission on English Prisons Today praises New York for doing what many thought impossible: reducing its prison population while reducing crime rates. During its high point in the 1990s, Rikers Island Correctional Facility held 23,000 prisons. Now it holds 14,500. During this era, crime rates in the city have also fallen.
This is surprising to many, considering the United States has been roundly criticized for its high incarceration rates and disproportionate imprisonment of the poor and minorities, according to Professor David Wilson, the commission's chair.
"The United States has been in the grip of mass incarceration since 1970, and as a result is between five and 10 times more likely to use imprisonment than similar western-style democracies," Wilson wrote yesterday on the Guardian's Comment is Free Web page. "...one in three adult African-Americans is now in some form of correctional supervision. More than 2.2 million Americans are currently in jail."
But New York City has deviated from the norm.
"This has been done in New York City by developing 'problem-solving justice,' diverting away from prison low-level, nonviolent offenders while investing heavily in a range of treatment to overcome their mental health needs, addiction, housing needs, or other problems," Wison said.
Through this approach and use of results-oriented, technocratic language, the city has de-politicized criminal justice, and in doing so has tempered rhetoric over which political party is soft or tough on crime, Wilson said.
New York criminal justice professionals explain their approach "in a variety of ways," Wilson wrote in the Guardian, "but above all it has been about focusing on success, rather than failure – a bracing contrast with the risk-adverse and demoralized criminal justice system found in England."