Skip to Content »

Read the first link before reading this post!

  • February 3rd, 2012

ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL criminological wisdom, crime can be significantly lowered only by eliminating its “root causes”: poverty, inequality, and racism. Policing, in this view, can only respond to crime after the fact by making an arrest; preventing crime from occurring in the first place lies in the domain of economic and welfare policy. What makes New York such a powerful natural experiment is that it is, in all respects but one, Zimring shows, nearly the same city as it was in 1990, when its homicide rate was five times higher. The previously assumed drivers of crime—poverty, income inequality, drug use—have not diminished; and family breakdown—conservatives’ preferred root cause—has worsened. 

Heather MacDonald's book review in The New Republic is the most crisp and important summary of the NY criminal justice triumph I’ve seen. It is only a review but it sets out the key elements.

 I can confirm too some of the reviewer’s criticisms. I spent a morning sitting in on a CompStat. I had three days in NY meeting people from Commissioner Kelly’s office, the Mayor’s office and the City Courts. The reviewer is right from what I saw to rebut Zimring’s claim that enforcing laws against graffiti, public drinking, and begging were not important. I saw a determination to apply the Broken Windows policing revolution (to cut serious crime first enforce the small rules rigorously. Set a pattern of expectation that people will be law abiding (Frank Q Wilson’s emphasis on the importance potential offenders place on working out the norms,  “how people behave around here”) and make  a climate in which offenders feel that crime will not pay .

The only element of the reform I saw not touched on in the review is the contribution of the NY  courts. They cooperated. Justice became much more swift and certain. They provided 24 hour a day sittings to get rid of delays and backlogs. Instead of declining to sentence because Rikers Island city  jail complex was full, they sentenced anyway and left it to the prison authorities to handle the consequences. When I was there a prison system designed for 14000 had over 20000 prisoners. The drop in crime has cured that. The muster is now generally comfortably below the design capacity. But as stressful as it must have been for all concerned, I’m sure if we asked the thousands of offenders who were saved from being murdered had the lawlessness of the 1990’s continued, the hardships of the peak imprisonment period were a small price to pay.

So the Courts helped the NY police to avoid the NZ Police revolving door frustration, as arrested offenders are released on bail or with pitiful sentences to carry on hurting and intimidating.

 It is interesting that Commissioner Bratton is not quite replicating his New York success in Los Angeles, though there is a great improvement. I visited LA and met City officials and youth justice and court people in 2008. They were pessimistic about getting to where they should be, because in California the jails were under County and State control (not city) and the Courts too could not be steered to cooperate. So offenders were being let out as fast as they could catch them and the Policing reform message was muffled.

 The most stunning thing to me when I became ACT’s Justice spokesman in 1999 was the intellectual poverty of the local criminal justice establishment. My first Christmas I got the Parliamentary library to assemble for me a catch-up  reading list in criminal justice, because my legal career had been in commercial and public law.

The reading was deeply unsatisfying . The European and NZ authors essentially cited each other's opinions or less than rigorous "research"  with as little exposure as possible to contrary views. There was a bit more radicalism (actually only objectivity) from Australia, but the officials and academics here were united in a self congratulatory consensus that froze out alternative views as “redneck” .

 They tried to ignore New Zealand’s 35 year trajectory from being one of the safest countries in the world to being probably worse than the US for many crime risks ordinary citizens face (the notable exception being murder, but US murder was highly concentrated in the 7 biggest police districts, and was a phenomenon of drug lord turf battles especially during the crack cocaine peak). One year I noticed a peak in the Central Police district homicide figures (Wanganui, Manawatu, Hawkes Bay) and had a statistician friend check for me – that district did indeed have a higher murder rate than New York.

 Officials even contrived to have New Zealand withdraw from participation in the most authoritative international survey of comparative crime exposure (the 4 yearly International Crime Victimisation Survey conducted by the Dutch Government for the then 17 participating countries). I am satisfied that it was because they did not want the embarrassment of an authoritative measure of their failure. Thankfully we reinstated our participation in the last one, but few took any notice of the results.

 The New Zealand establishment  measure of success or failure was not in crime rates (risks of crime against innocents), but the recidivism rate, or the imprisonment rate. Prison is deemed a failure because it does not reform so criminals return, usually promptly. But rehabilitation has only ever been one of four objectives of punishment, and it is universally recognised to be the least achievable whatever the “treatment”. In New Zealand still the official ideology is that criminal process is for therapy for offenders, not justice as most cultures have always known it – balancing the wrong and making sure that the law abiding are not mugs for being so. When justice is therapeutic, for the offender – and not primarily driven by the justice rights of victims, or the protection rights of the law abiding, it is easy to justify the NZ failed experiment.

And even in the US, where the inconvenient success of Clinton’s 1996 Federal reforms was starting in the early 2000s to mug the academic establishment it was hard to find objective scholarly work.

 Here in NZ the US experience has always been too distasteful to be a topic worthy of respectable academic interest, other than by Canterbury’s Greg Newbold, who is largely was shunned by the rest of the NZ justice establishment. I think it is mainly a reflection of the conventional elitist repugnance for the US. That is despite it being a wonderful laboratory  for comparisons, with 50 states and 30000 police forces and multiple prisons and rehabilitation authorities all trying different approaches.

Zimring’s call to his fellow establishment criminologists is the equivalent in that world of Gorbachev admitting that the Soviet experiment had failed and calling it quits. Do we now have a Minister of Justice who will call time on the failures here?

She'll have to endure a gale of "expert" hostility, often playing the woman and not the ball, but she will be vindicated if she prevails. I've been studying (and posting) on these matters for many years now. The research current is running in only one direction.

PS 7/2/12 DPF linked to this and to the review. The substantial comment thread has many informative observations, particularly from David Garrett and F E Smith. David's note on my acting for murderer William Rufus Junior Marsh was wrong in one respect. My junior assistance (to Warwick Flaus) was on offences that preceded Marsh's first homicide. Warwick and I both regretted the work that may have helped cement his (correct) view that the law was toothless by leaving him at liberty after his early arrests for assault. 



[…] Franks blogs a review of a new book: ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL criminological wisdom, crime can be […]

  • David Garrett
  • February 3rd, 2012
  • 3:31 pm

Well said Steve….the book will become a "must read" for me.
New Zealand academia should be ashamed of their treatment of Newbold  which is simply because he doesn't "toe the party line" recited ad nauseum by the aptly named  Prof. John Pratt and other New Zealand criminologists. Aside from his own first hand experience – now very dated of course – as far as I know Newbold's  academic qualifications equal or exceed those of his critics. He is widely published in academic journals in Australia – those in New Zealand turn their noses up at the same articles.
In 2009 I had to persuade Simon Power to invite Greg to the "Drivers of Crime" summit at parliament…the same Simon Power who happily extended invitations to several high profile members of two biggest gangs in the country.

  • Don McKenzie
  • February 3rd, 2012
  • 5:04 pm

Excellent post. Good basic commonsense. Never understood how our politicians and other opinionmakers have so little understanding of human nature and an inability to learn from history.


The alleged New Zealand criminological distaste for the US experience is not universal.  Professor John Pratt hosted a lecture by Franklin Zimring at Victoria University on the “Great American Crime Decline”.  It was in I think 2009, around the time Pratt was awarded the 2009 Radzinowicz prize for the best article in the British Journal of Criminology 2008 – one of the most coveted academic prizes outside of Australasia. 
Zimring’s book is already being re-interpreted widely by those at either end of the political spectrum.  In his view, crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.
It will probably be the most debated and discussed book on criminology in 2012.  Just as compelling is the brilliant opinion piece by Adam Gopnick ‘ in the New Yorker, ‘The Caging of America – Why Do we lock up so many people?”, in which he places  Zimring’s book in a wider context.   Go read it at:
But first, read the book. 

  • Luc Hansen
  • February 9th, 2012
  • 8:20 pm


I'm frankly surprised to see lawyers (well, maybe excepting one or two) supporting such an obviously deeply racist police tactic as Stop and Frisk.
Fortunately, Stop and Frisk is heading to its day in court:
Some nice graphics here:
The bias inherent in the US criminal justice system is surely evidenced by the fact that while whites and blacks commit drug crimes at almost equal rates, those locked up in the Federal system are 90% African Americans, even though they comprise only 13% of the population and only 14% of drug users:


[…] Stephen Franks on a book review of The City That Became Safe: One year I noticed a peak in the Central Police district homicide figures (Wanganui, Manawatu, Hawkes Bay) and had a statistician friend check for me – that district did indeed have a higher murder rate than New York. […]

Leave your comments:

* Required fields. Your e-mail address will not be published on this site

You can use the following HTML tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>