Marijuana Arrests, General Crime Rates Plummet For California Youth: Study

Youth Crime in California at an All-Time Low

Crimes committed by juveniles in California have plunged to the lowest level since record keeping began in 1954, according to a study released by the non-profit Center on Juvenile Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

Between 2010 and 2011 alone, youth arrests declined a surprising 20 percent.

Felony arrests were down 17 percent, misdemeanor and status offenses declined 21 percent, and homicide arrests decreased by 26 percent.

“[T]oday’s young people are less likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than any generation in at least the last 60 years,” the study notes.

The declining rate of juvenile arrests is surprising, not least because arrests of middle-aged Californians — those who are generally parents of teenagers — increased by nearly 50 percent between 1995 and 2010.  Common wisdom in criminal justice circles says the children follow in the footsteps of the parents, but today’s youth are much less likely than their parents to run afoul of the law.

Juvenile felony arrests for violent crime has declined by over 50 percent since the 1970s. The arrest rate for all felonies has declined over 70%.

The Center for Juvenile Criminal Justice describes the change as “generational.”

“Even though today’s young people are subjected to a variety of conditions that, theoretically at least, would predict more crime than among youth of 20 to 60 years ago,” the study notes, “they are engaging in less offending for reasons evidently tied to their own characteristics and times.”

No one knows exactly what these generational changes may be, but whatever the cause, they are certainly reason for Californians to celebrate.

The Decrease in youth crime is estimated to save the state over $1 billion annually on incarceration costs alone. In 2011, there were 12,000 fewer minors locked up. With each incarcerated youth costing $100,000 per year, the savings add up fast.

According to the analysis of the Center for Juvenile Criminal Justice, the long term downward trend in youth crime in California challenges some widely-held notions, especially the idea that more young people and increasing racial and ethnic diversity in a community lead to more crime.

On the contrary, the study notes, California now has the most diverse youth population in its history — and has the lowest level of youth crimes since the state began keeping records.

Law enforcement and prison industry officials who support “tough on crime” legislation often warn that reducing the rate of incarceration could increase the rate of crime by emboldening lawbreakers. In California, the opposite has been shown to be true among young people. Decreasing rates of  incarceration have led to corresponding decreases in the number of juveniles on probation, parole, or other criminal justice supervision.

Another area where expectations have been confounded is poverty. Crime experts generally predict that as individuals and communities struggle financially, more and more people turn to alternative — and illegal — means of supporting themselves.

But again, the data in California has proved otherwise. Since the 1970s, the percentage of California youth growing up underneath the poverty line has increased from 12.5 to 19 percent, and yet crime rates have decreased.

While no one is exactly sure what the reasons are behind the generational decline in youth crime, there is one recent change in the law that has had a dramatic effect on arrests.

In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 1449,  reducing the penalty for most cases of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction. That change in status downgraded basic possession of less than one ounce to marijuana from an arrestable offense to a ticketable one, like j-walking or speeding.

The law became effective January 1, 2011, and the results were immediate: In 2011, California had a 61% drop in the number of youth arrests for marijuana possession over the previous year.

In raw numbers, 9,000 fewer minors were arrested for marijuana possession  — the single largest contributor to the over all 20% decline in juvenile arrests between 2010 and 2011.

While marijuana is still classified federally as a schedule 1 substance with “no currently accepted medical use… and a lack of accepted safety,” the drug has been legalized for medical use at a local level in 18 states and the District of Columbia, and is recognized across much of the world as being much safer than tobacco or alcohol consumption.

Federally, simple marijuana possession is a felony crime; in California it was downgraded to a misdemeanor offense in 1976, and is now punishable only by a $100 fine for possession of under one ounce under SB 1446.

Arrests of California youth peaked in the 1960’s and 70s, when nearly 10 percent of all minors in the state had criminal records. That percentage has declined steadily since, and now is less than 3.5 percent.

Overall, the arrest rate for minors in California has declined 68% since the 1970s, when the state had the highest rates of youth crime in the nation. In 1975, methods of tracking crimes changed in California, and the Center of Juvenile Criminal Justice says these changes may mask an even steeper decline in youth crime.

Previously, many youth crimes were categorized as “delinquent tendencies” instead of being logged under a specific charge.

While juvenile crime rates are declining nationwide, the rate of decline in California has been more rapid and has reduced the state to equivalency with the national average.