Legal Aid's Chief Attorney Says More Attention Needs To Be Focused On Arrests That Don't Warrant Prosecution

As the City announced that the rate of incarceration has dropped 36 percent in the last 12 years, Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society, said that the City needs to address arrests for crimes like taking up two seats on the subway or possessing small amounts of marijuana. "Greater attention needs to be paid in the incoming administration for arrests that don't warrant prosecution," Banks told the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal
City's Inmate Population Declines
Rate of Incarceration Dropped 36% From 2001 to 2012
By Pervaiz Shallwani
Dec. 26, 2013

The city's inmate population dropped significantly since 2001, while the national rate increased during the same time period, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.

The rate of city residents who are incarcerated in local and state facilities dropped 36% from 2001 to 2012—from 669 prisoners per 100,000 residents to 448 per 100,000 residents, Mr. Bloomberg said. The city's overall population increased roughly 1 million during that time, officials said.

The national rate of incarceration from 2001 to 2012 grew by 3%—from 622 inmates per 100,000 people to 641 per 100,000 people, the mayor said, citing the federal statistics.

The drop includes the number of inmates from the city serving sentences in state prisons, which fell from 41,880 in 2001 to 25,316 in 2012. The number of inmates in city jails fell from 14,490 to 11,827 over roughly the same period.

The decrease was credited in part to prosecutors, judges and correction department officials using community-based alternative programs designed to keep defendants out of jail or keep them from returning to prison, city officials said.

The announcement was part of a two-day swing across the city by the mayor highlighting historic crime drops during his 12 years in office, an effort to combat a legacy that has been tarnished by accusations of racial profiling.

"The success that we've had in reducing both crime rates and incarceration rates is not a coincidence," Mr. Bloomberg said, speaking at a probation office in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens. "It's the product of a coordinated focus across our entire criminal justice system." Critics said the administration gets credit for the decreases, but said the city needs to do more to address arrests for crimes like possessing small amounts of marijuana and taking up extra seats on the subway.

"Greater attention needs to be paid in the incoming administration for arrests that don't warrant prosecution," said Steven Banks, the attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society. City officials said they are trying to keep people from being rearrested for small crimes, and pointed to a program called Neighborhood Opportunity Network, or NeON, as a success.

NeON is tailored for young men on probation. The program moves their meetings with probation officers away from courthouses and into neighborhoods, where they can be linked with social services and job training.

Among those who enrolled in NeON is Michael Smith, 24 years old, of South Jamaica, Queens, who said he was sentenced to probation a year ago. He enrolled at the suggestion of his probation officer. "I did what I had to do. I made something of myself. I didn't get my GED yet, but I am working, doing demolition, and I hope I can move forward," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Bloomberg also announced the creation of a new initiative, called the Court-Based Intervention Resource Team Program, that would screen eligible defendants with mental health problems in an effort to match them with available services.

Fordham University School of Law professor John Pfaff, who studies prisons, sentencing and statistics, said district attorneys offices are taking advantage of alternative programs "instead of pushing for incarceration." The impact of the programs will be better known in the future, he said.