Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

February 11, 2009


David Wilson, Guardian, UK - Michael Jacobson from the Vera Institute of Justice summed it up best of all: "In New York there is lower crime, safer communities and fewer people in prisons.". . . 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 – a reality that falls disproportionately on the poor. As a result one in three adult African-Americans is now in some form of correctional supervision. More than 2.2 million Americans are currently in jail.

In New York City, however, prison numbers are declining. Rikers Island Correctional Facility. . . at its high point in the 1990s, it held as many as 23,000 individuals, overflowing into three barges moored alongside the island; its population currently rests at around 14,500. Such a population decline has enabled the jail to develop a more systematic pre-release system, which links inmates with job, treatment and training programmes in the community. . . Elsewhere, the city has actually closed some prison facilities.

At the heart of the changing sensibility towards the use of prison in New York City is an attempt to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable concepts – first, taking low-level, "quality of life" crime seriously, but also, secondly, not over-relying on the use of prison as a means of combating those offenders who transgress in these ways. And, of course, convincing the community that not sending these offenders to jail but offering them other kinds of intervention is in the long run the best approach to adopt. As Greg Berman, Director of the Center for Court Innovation and formerly the lead planner for the Red Hook Community Justice Center puts it, this is not "jail or nothing" but about "problem solving justice that creates a space for punishment, help, services and accountability". . .

The New York City approach has garnered public and political support, and thus allowed criminal justice professionals to guide, prompt and push public policy. One factor in all of this has been the development of a more technocratic language to explain what is being done, or as Berman characterized it, "a move away from the language of social justice". Indeed, the most obvious example of this technocratic approach was the detailed maps of the Justice Mapping Centre – an organization that uses computer mapping and other graphical depictions of quantitative data "to analyze and communicate social policy information". In this way politicians from both left and right have been able to sign up to approaches which are demonstratively effective, moving away from crude ideas of what is "tough" or "soft" on crime.

David Wilson is chair of the Commission on English Prisons Today.


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