The criminal justice system is rapidly disappearing from the lives of California’s young people. In 1995, 255,000 of California’s 3.7 million teenage youths were arrested, and more than 20,000 were incarcerated in state and local youth facilities.
In 2015, in a teenage youth population 400,000 larger, those figures stood at 72,000 and 5,000, respectively.
Juvenile murder arrests have fallen from 500 to 600 per year in the early 1990s to 88 in 2015. Eight of California’s 11 juvenile facilities have closed; the state’s juvenile justice budget has been slashed by 70 percent; 7,000 beds lie empty in juvenile halls and camps. Arrests of Californians under age 20 (121,000 in 2015) have fallen below those in the 50 to 59 age range (127,000).
How did this adolescent anti-crime revolution happen? Certainly, no one predicted it. Twenty years ago, alarmist crime experts were forecasting tens of thousands more “adolescent superpredators” bringing “bloodbaths” to city streets.
Even after two decades of stunning declines in violence by youth, leaders continue to bandy century-old notions of “deadly demographics” and “crime prone” populations. Conservatives led by President Donald Trump blame immigrants and city dwellers for “American carnage.” Liberal interests claim young people are “driven to crime” by flawed brains and development.
These two long-feared populations – immigrants and youth – closely overlap. Immigration has shaped California’s young population. More than half of California’s 1.1 million urban youth ages 10 to 17 (including six in 10 in Los Angeles) have at least one foreign-born parent. Five in six are nonwhite.
Yet instead of exponential carnage, California’s urban young brought a revolution in crime so astonishing that academics and experts barely acknowledge, let alone explain, numbers that look like misprints. In California’s 15 largest cities (populations of 250,000 or more) from 1990 to 2015, youth arrests for murder fell from 373 to 21.
The cities of Los Angeles and Compton (“South Central” of gang legend) show the most profound trends: from 1990 to 2015, youthful murder arrests fell from 269 to eight; violent crimes from 4,800 to 800; and total arrests, from 23,500 to 3,600. Gun killings of school-age children and teens decreased from 101 in 1990 to eight in the most recent year ending June 1, 2017. Status offenses (youth-control measures such as curfew, truancy, etc.) have dropped 90 percent. L.A. youth incarcerations have fallen by four-fifths over the last 20 years, led by a 95 percent decline in youths in state custody.
Once a risky state for drug abuse, violent crime, violent death, gang shootings, school dropout and other ills prior to the mid-1990s, California is now safer than the rest of the country. A growing youth population shaped by immigration is driving these positive trends, which in turn are forging dynamic new realities.
First, California adolescents can no longer be called a “crime prone” population. Sixteen-year-olds now have the same arrest rate as 50-year-olds. This is surprising – not because they defy backwards “teenage brain” notions invoking biology-based claims of innate “adolescent risk-taking,” debunked by recent scientific reviews – but because teenagers’ much higher poverty rates compared to middle-agers’ would predict higher arrest rates. While leaders have done little to reduce youth poverty and enhance opportunity (in fact, budget cuts and tuition increases have made higher education much costlier), young people reduced their dropout rates by two-thirds and increased college enrollment and graduation by 35 percent since 1990.
Second, harshly policing youth by “status” arrests and large-scale incarceration is not necessary to reduce crime. As California slashed its incarcerated youth population and reduced status-crime enforcement by more than 90 percent, youth crime plummeted as never before. Today, with tens of thousands more youth on California streets, violence and crime are at record low levels.
Rather than analyzing and learning from dynamic trends, authorities and academics seem mired in 1990s and 1890s thinking. Massive reductions in youth crime do not appear attributable to policies or campaigns. We can now see there was no unique “Boston miracle” or Minneapolis gun-violence reduction. Large declines in murder and shootings among youth occurred in nearly all cities around the country, regardless of local strategies or lack thereof.
What common measures would explain huge drops in youth crime in 15 very different California cities, from East Oakland’s impoverished streets to wealthy, suburban Irvine? Or declines in Part I (serious violent and property) rates among youth from 1995 to 2015 of 70 percent or more in 23 states, including ones as different as Michigan and Idaho, Washington and West Virginia, New Jersey and Utah, and Oklahoma and Connecticut?
The best evidence suggests America’s increasingly diverse, more immigrant-influenced young people themselves deserve credit for their substantial decline in crime and increased educational attainment. Why this generation has turned out so differently remains a challenge for researchers and policy makers alike, and the first step is giving up past dogmas and admitting just how striking their trends are.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is the author of four books on youth issues.