For the 10 years I lived in New York I had to run the gauntlet of a section of Broadway I called the DMZ, the demilitarised zone, populated by beggars, addicts, drunks and drug dealers. Now, the DMZ is gone, reflecting a New York where crime has plummeted 80 per cent since 1980.
The lessons from New York have helped form an alliance for reform in Australia which ranges from ''lock 'em up'' conservatives to ''blame society'' progressives. They have found common cause in opposing the pointless cost of jailing people who have not committed a violent crime, a cost which comes to $70,000 a year for adults and $250,000 for juveniles.
Our prisons are full of such people and the most important person who doesn't like it is the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, a career prosecutor and social conservative. Someone on his staff should get him a copy of The City That Became Safe, a new book by Franklin Zimring, a criminologist and professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, who has examined the causes of New York's crime plunge.
New York has achieved twice the national rate of the decline in crime in the past 30 years while reducing the incarceration rate.
The tide turned when a Democratic mayor, David Dinkins, an African-American liberal in denial about black crime, was replaced by the city's leading prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani. New Yorkers, who vote overwhelmingly Democrat, were so weary of crime they turned to a Republican.
Under Giuliani, the police began swamping areas where street crime was brazen. They conducted stop-and-frisk operations. They collected fingerprints. This raised the ire of civil libertarians and civil rights warriors but it had a dramatic impact.
Police identified what they called hot spots and although most of those frisked were black and Hispanic, the black and Hispanic communities benefited most from the new policies because they were disproportionately the victims of street crime. Giuliani was re-elected. After two terms he was replaced by another Republican, Michael Bloomberg, who later fell out with the party, but Republicans have been running New York for the better part of 18 years.
Professor Zimring concludes that the police, by inhibiting street crime, inhibited crime generally. They took away a milieu. This had the greatest impact on the greatest source of crimes - criminals coming out of prison - who found their old comfort zones were gone. This led to a reduction of crime, not because prisoners came out ''reformed'' but because a reduction in criminal activity on the streets had changed the social environment. It created a virtuous cycle.
Recidivism declined. The incarceration rate declined. The police also took a more pragmatic approach to victimless crime, especially marijuana possession. This led to a further reduction in the prison population.
The New York experience has confirmed the conviction of the NSW Attorney-General that the incarceration and recidivism rates in NSW are ''a disgrace''. He wants a reduction in the prison population: ''We're moving away from thinking that says success is measured by how many people you lock up.''
He is reforming the Bail Act: ''When you consider that 82 per cent of those on remand in juvenile detention centres don't receive a custodial sentence, and 11 per cent are acquitted altogether, it would seem the bail laws have been used as a form of imprisonment … It is absolutely scandalous.''
He wants more young offenders out of what he calls ''the university of crime'', the prison system.He wants to change the way drug addicts are treated inside the justice system: ''The corrections system has become the biggest mental health institution in the state … 60 per cent of crimes are committed by people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.''
He wants to shift more resources to drug treatment, and to give judges greater latitude in sentencing: ''We have to address the ridiculous complexity of our sentencing laws … Judges have a much harder role now.''
Support for all this, notably decriminalising marijuana possession, arrived this week via a group of prominent policy makers, including the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, and former Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer. Prime Minister Gillard was quick to dismiss their call. It may be another battle she is destined to lose.
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