Reciprocal Effects of Crime and Incarceration in New York City Neighborhoods

Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School
Valerie West
Jan Holland


The social concentration of incarceration among non-whites is a recurring theme in criminal justice research and legal scholarship. Despite robust evidence of its social concentration, few studies have examined its spatial concentration, or the effects of spatially concentrated incarceration over time on individuals and social areas. In this article, we examine the growth and spatial concentration of incarceration in police precincts and smaller homogeneous neighborhoods in New York City from 1985-96. We show that rates of incarceration spiked sharply after 1985 as crime rates rose. Higher incarceration rates persisted through the 1990s, and declined far more slowly after 1990 than did the sharply falling crime rates during the same period. We show that imprisonment rates are highest in the City's poorest neighborhoods and police precincts, although not necessarily the neighborhoods with the highest overall crime rates. We also show the perverse effects of incarceration on crime rates when analyzed at the precinct level: across the time series, higher incarceration rates predict higher crime rates one year later. We show that the growth of incarceration and its persistence over time are attributed primarily to two factors: drug enforcement and structured sentencing laws that mandate imprisonment for repeat felons. Neighborhoods with high rates of incarceration invite closer and more punitive police enforcement and parole surveillance, contributing to the growing number of repeat admissions and the resilience of incarceration even as crime rates fall. Incarceration begets more incarceration, and incarceration also begets more crime, which in turn invites more aggressive enforcement, which then re-supplies incarceration. We discuss three mechanisms that contribute to and reinforce incarceration in neighborhoods: the declining economic fortunes of former inmates and the effects on neighborhoods where they tend to reside, resource and relationship strains on families of prisoners that weaken the family's ability to supervise children, and voter disenfranchisement that weakens the political economy of neighborhoods.