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Juvenile crime drops to record low in California

According to new data, juvenile crime has dropped dramatically in California, even as the use of detention has decreased.
According to new data, juvenile crime has dropped dramatically in California, even as the use of detention has decreased.
Photo by Richard Johnstone via Flickr Creative Commons

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Youth crime levels in California dropped to the lowest in recorded history last year, according to a new report from the San Francisco based think tank, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

In 2011, there were 3,483.1 arrests per 100,000 youth aged 10-17, the lowest since the state began keeping such statistics in 1954. 

That reality contrasts sharply with popular myths about the rising tide of youth violence, writes CJCJ researcher Mike Males, also author of the book Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth. 

Particularly, the data dispel any notion that Black and Latino youth drive up crimes rates.

"In fact, the state’s largest, most diverse youth population has  the lowest level of both major and minor offenses ever reliably tabulated," Males wrote in his report.

RELATED: FBI: Decline in violent crime nationally & in Los Angeles

In the 1950s, California's youth population was 80 percent non-Latino White. Today it's 73 percent non-White. 

The crime low comes at other historic points for the state when it comes to juvenile justice. The state's juvenile prison system is the smallest it's been in more than a decade.  And in general, incarceration levels have dropped. As of December 2011, an estimated 7,500 youth were in some sort of state or county lock-up on any given night, down from 11,000 in the mid-1990s. 

If not tougher policing or more time locked up, what explains California's dramatic drop in juvenile crime? Males cites two potential factors: changes in marijuana laws and socioeconomics.

The first is a pretty simple idea. In 2010, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill decriminalizing the possession of a small amount of marijuana. The following year, arrests of juveniles for marijuana-related crimes dropped 61 percent. 

The second possible factor, socioeconomics, is a bit more complicated.  Poverty and high arrest rates tend to be linked. And while California youth today are actually poorer than they were in the 1950s (and are about the same, povertywise, since the 1990s), their living situations have changed.

"The highest violence rates by far involve youth living in communities where poverty is concentrated," Males wrote. "Over the last decade, the percentage of youths residing in communities where 30 percent or more of the residents are impoverished fell by 9% in California even as it increased by 29 percent in other states." 

Those factors serve as partial explanation of the crime drop, Males said. And perhaps more importantly, his research shows, incarceration and tougher policing seem to have little to do with it. 

"California’s youth crime trends continue to demonstrate the need for wholesale revision in theories and policies regarding crime," he concluded.