City Journal tries to explain New York City's amazing drop in crime in the 1990s, and while I don't disagree with anything in it, it's far from the whole story. A crucial piece of the history started much earlier, and is rarely mentioned because it's in no one's political interest to do so. When New York voters rejected a $500 million bond issue to build prisons in the early 1980s, the new governor, Mario Cuomo, nevertheless decided to massively increase prison capacity using back-door borrowing through the UDC (ancestor of the ESDC). That could be seen as fiscally irresponsible, but new prisons were urgently needed given the existing overcrowding and exploding crime rates (there were six times more homicides in the city in 1990 than in 1960). Tough-sentencing laws were unenforceable without prisons to put violent or drug-dealing felons in, but since it's a liberal Democrat who built them, neither his side nor their conservative opponents has been anxious to advertise the fact.
The city's crime rate actually stopped climbing during the administration of Mayor David Dinkins, another liberal Democrat, who whatever his other failings hired more police. Conservatives (along with some Democrats including Bill Clinton) can take credit for welfare reform, which probably helped, along with some other more responsible cultural trends. So did tough-on-crime laws enacted in Albany under Republicans George Pataki and Joe Bruno, and parallel federal policies, and the improvement in police tactics and general competence under GOP Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Conservatives also get credit just for being willing to address the problem with some conviction, in an era when powerful liberal voices like The New York Times editorial page accepted rising crime rates as inevitable and irreversible, and often criticized anti-crime initiatives on grounds of civil liberties or racial politics.
While the plummeting NYC crime rate also helped the state's figures, some NYC criminals were pushed out to the troubled cities of upstate. Getting back to Cuomo, I saw him at a Daily Gazette editorial board react to a question from our police reporter who had mentioned that drug dealers were referring to Schenectady as "Baby New York." Cuomo, in his gravelly Queens accent, kept scornfully repeating the phrase, "Baby New York." But it got his attention. On Nov. 17, 1993, state police conducted raids collectively known as "Operation Crackdown" in Schenectady, and according to the Web site of DA Bob Carney, "Of the 105 people prosecuted as a result of Crackdown, 104 were convicted and served an average of 3.4 years to 8.7 years in state prison. One of the results of the sweep was a homicide-free year for the city of Schenectady in 1994."
Cuomo's back-door borrowing to build those prisons can be justified even in fiscal terms, because NYC's economic revival wouldn't have happened without the fall in crime, and the twin successes fed on each other in a virtuous circle. While Cuomo was often criticized for making starry-eyed speeches but failing to deliver on their liberal promise, his conservative approach to crime control was effective. Meanwhile, the continued crime problem in upstate cities contributes to keeping them economically distressed, while downstate-dominated state government's recent actions on crime were closing four prison camps and weakening the Rockefeller drug laws.