In the late 1980s and early 1990s, New York topped national lists for incarceration rates among US cities of comparable size. Today, it has the smallest proportion of its residents incarcerated for any big city in the United States. What has caused this shift? On April 30, members of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency (CJA) and the New York City Mayor’s Office met to discuss findings that help explain the city’s reduction in incarceration rates. The panel, “Understanding the Past, Imagining the Future: 30 Years of New York City Criminal Justice Data,” was hosted by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law and moderated by Aubrey Fox, executive director of the CJA. 

Since 1987 the CJA, a nonprofit organization that provides pretrial services in the city’s criminal justice system, has conducted over six million interviews with arrestees before they see a judge. In its annual report this year, the CJA mined thirty years of interview data for trends.  “The work that CJA has put out and the way in which they have used that data to try to educate the public—which is so crucial—about what is actually happening in our criminal justice system is fantastic and probably unparalleled,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice,

These interviews collect background data ranging from the defendant’s occupation and number of family members in the community, to past incarcerations and offenses. With a better understanding of which factors best indicate whether a defendant will return for scheduled court appearances, CJA staff have been able to recommend more defendants for pretrial release without bail.  

“Over the thirty years, the release on recognizance rate has steadily increased,” said Michele Sviridoff, deputy criminal justice coordinator emeritus for research and planning in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. In 1987, the release on recognizance rate was 53 percent pretrial. By 2016, it had risen to 67 percent. 

CJA interview data also revealed that judges are much more likely to release on recognizance defendants charged with nonviolent felonies or misdemeanors, said Fox. Based on this data, in 2009 the CJA partnered with the Mayor’s Office and opened the first supervised release program for defendants in nonviolent felony cases , which helps them avoid jail time. By 2016, the program was city-wide.

“What made it so successful,” Sviridoff said, “is that it was crafted with judges and DAs and defenders, so there was enthusiastic uptake.” 

The CJA is also dedicated to releasing their findings to the public, Fox said, in the hopes of inspiring other jurisdictions to use hard data rather than anecdote to drive criminal justice policymaking. Annual Reports dating back to 1997 are available on the CJA's website

Posted June 4, 2018