Cops v. Prison Guards

I am reading Frank Zimring’s magnificent new book, The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and its Control.  As the subtitle indicates, much of the book focuses on the remarkable drop in crime that has occurred in New York City since 1991.  Although crime has dropped nationally in the same period, New York’s experience stands out.  On average, cities have seen a decline in crime rates of about 40%, but New York’s homicide, burglary, and robbery rates have dropped by more than 80%.  Zimring characterizes this as “the most dramatic crime reduction yet documented in any modern big city.”  (xi)

In Chpater 7, Zimring opens up from the New York story and offers some broader reflections on American criminal-justice policies over the past four decades.  He notes that incapacitation, longer sentences, and prison-building dominated the policy agenda from the 1970’s until at least the mid-1990’s — a period that witnessed explosive growth in American prison populations.  Zimring makes an interesting observation that police were almost entirely absent from the crime-control debates of that era.  The neglect of policing is reflected in the relative growth rates of police personnel and corrections staff: In 1972, police outnumbered correctional staff by more than three to one, but that ratio fell to less than 1.5 to one by 2007.  (186)  In effect, as policymakers were throwing more and more public resources at the crime problem, we made a choice to spend the money on prison guards, not cops.

What drove that choice?


Zimring attributes this choice, in part, to the division of responsibilities in our criminal justice system among federal, state, and local governments:

The state legislatures that drafted penal codes and maintained prisons had no major responsibility for most police budgets or administration.  A governor or state legislator can initiate changes in the penal code and legislate to build new prisons or close old ones.  But city police are not either supported or controlled by state government.  The federal government has authority only over the FBI, the drug enforcement authority, and other specialized police forces totaling about 10% of the nation’s law enforcement.  And the lack of direct legislative responsibility at the federal or state level is one reason that so little attention gets paid to police as crime preventers in Congress or state legislatures.  The legislative attention span quickly departs from considering activities that are beyond legislative control.  (185)

But, Zimring says, this is not the whole story.  The choice of prison guards over cops also reflected prevailing views of who criminals are: hardened predators who can only be controlled by apprehension and incarceration.  (Our own Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is an outspoken contemporary proponent of this point of view.)   Although the apprehension part of the equation does require police, there is no room in this perspective for preventive policing:

Almost all the preventive activities of police are situated and limited in time and geography.  The police can occupy a street corner for an hour or (in hot spot interventions) a week.  Any crime opportunity that is also limited in time and space can become an offense not committed as a result.  But the life-course persistent offender with fixed propensities to commit crimes can vary the time and place of his offenses to avoid the situational constraints imposed by the police.  (186)

Assumptions about the offender, then, ruled out creative, proactive policing, and undermined the force of arguments for giving police substantially more resources.  Indeed, on this view, it is the prison guards who may have the most important and challenging job to do: the police only have to catch the predator once, but the prison guards have to hold onto him for many, many years.  (Josh Page brilliantly dissects how the California prison guards have played on this perception to build their political influence in his book, The Toughest Beat (see my post here).)

Zimring believes that the New York experience belies that assumption that most crime is committed by hardened predators, and the view that spending more on prisons is a better crime-control strategy than spending more on police.  New York City achieved its remarkable crime drop with less, not more, incarceration.  While national incarceration rates have grown since the early 1990’s, New York City’s rate has dropped.  Zimring estimates that 50,000 more New Yorkers would have been in prison in 2008 if the Big Apple had followed national incarceration trends.  New York’s emphasis on cops over prison guards is also evident in state employment data: the number of police in New York State has increased by more than 35% since 1990, while the number of corrections personnel has grown by only 1%.  (189)

So, based on the New York experience anyway, it appears that police may be a better investment of crime-control dollars than prison guards.