Who Knows Why California Crime By Youth Is Plummeting?

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California: Aerial view of a downtown Los Angeles at sunset


The good news: California’s arrests of youths plunged another 17% in 2018 to the lowest levels ever recorded. The bad news: An arrested youth’s odds of being formally sentenced by a juvenile or adult court (rather than receiving informal sanctions) and of being incarcerated are rising rapidly. What underlies these trends?

The crime and violence plummet is phenomenal. In 2018, 84 Californians under age 18 were arrested for homicide, down 87% from 658 in 1990. 

California: Mike Males (headshot), senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, serious-looking man with thinning gray hair, beard, mustache, wearing wire-frame glasses, black T-shirt.

Mike Males

Here’s a statistic that defies common misconceptions about crime and violence today. The homicide arrest rate of the racially diverse teenaged youth in California’s 15 largest cities (including Los Angeles and Oakland), 3.1 per 100,000 population age 10-17 in 2018, has fallen below the homicide arrest rate of middle-aged white people in the state’s rural, inland counties that voted for President Donald Trump (5.1 per 100,000 white people ages 40-69). No expert saw that development coming. 

State and local juvenile detention systems that subject youth to abuses and wasted days don’t deserve credit for decreasing crime. Once they enter the system, the recidivism rates of youth remain the same as in the past. Rather, crime fell because hundreds of thousands fewer youth in California are entering the system in the first place, particularly at the youngest ages. 

So, it’s encouraging that the plunge in juvenile arrests has left California’s juvenile detention facilities nearly empty. Juvenile hall bookings fell by 11% from the first quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019. As of March 2019, nearly 70% of facility beds were unoccupied. San Francisco, San Mateo and El Dorado counties are investigating closing their local juvenile halls, which cost over $300,000 per youth annually.

California DOJ, Juvenile Justice in California (2019); DOJ, Open Justice, Arrests (2018).

Figure 1. Formal court dispositions (upper line) and incarcerations (lower line) as percentages of total juvenile arrests, California, 2005-18

Unfortunately, there’s a disturbing countertrend: Those youth who do get arrested are far more likely to face formal sentencing by a juvenile or adult court rather than being handled informally, and to be incarcerated today than a decade ago.

Why are more arrested youth being incarcerated?

Juvenile Justice in California” shows that in 2010, 52% of juvenile arrests resulted in a formal disposition by a juvenile or adult court, and 12% of those arrested were incarcerated in a state or local facility. However, in 2018, 77% of juveniles arrested received a formal court disposition, and 21% were incarcerated. Why the large increases in youthful arrestees receiving dispositions and incarcerations — especially for those sentenced by juvenile courts — since 2010? 

Is this sharp increase in formal court sentencings and incarcerations per arrest over the last decade a sign of juvenile justice and probation system “pushback” to preserve their budgets, personnel and perhaps existence as the number of youthful arrestees plummets? If so, vigorous investigation and reforms are needed. If not, explanation is needed for why youths who are arrested, especially for misdemeanors, are more likely to face formal court action and detention today than in the past.

Why no study of these astonishing trends?

Disturbingly — as the nation reels from more gun carnage as this is written — no one important seems to care what factors underlie California’s phenomenal, 80% to 90% plummets in crime and gun killings among youth. Or similar trends in other states. Commentaries on youth crime read like they were written 25 years ago.

For more information on Youth Gun Violence Prevention, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Youth Gun Violence Prevention

Americans express shock and outrage at mass shootings, point accusing fingers at political opponents and demonize youth under the guise of caring. Yet we fail to invest in objective analysis that risks shaking up entrenched justice system, institutional, academic, political and news media interests and ideologies.

Here’s a megatrend begging for scrutiny. In the sprawling communities in and around Los Angeles, gun murders of youth ages 10 to 17 fell from 230 in 1991 to 19 in the most recent year ending July 31, 2019. Homicide arrests of youth fell by over 94%, from 388 to 21.

That’s beyond staggering. It’s revolutionary.

Good answers might be right in front of us as to how young people reduced crime and gun violence dramatically even as leaders fail to act on gun safety, reducing poverty, or improving job and education opportunities. We brag about our mature adult reasoning. It’s time to use it. 

Mike Males is senior research fellow for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.”

One thought on “Who Knows Why California Crime By Youth Is Plummeting?

  1. Mr. Males, you hit the nail on the head. Reducing juvenile crime isn’t about pushing youth into the system to get fixed, its about keeping them out of the system. When I became a judge in 1999, I was appalled at the number of low level offending youth that we allowed to come to arraignments to answer the charges. Diversion or just flat-out dismissal was almost non-existent. We were the ones creating what I call a hyper-recidivist phenomena by aggravating their circumstances and turning youth into delinquents who otherwise would have aged-out of any delinquent looking conduct because they were not delinquent in the first place. When are courts going to realize that just because a youth commits an indiscretion it doesn’t mean they are delinquent? And so, just as you say in your article, I turned our system upside down and two-thirds of the juvenile complaints we received are either handled informally or dismissed on advice and counsel. And the vast majority of these youth we divert or dismiss do not return. Consequently, our delinquency filings are down 82% and the felony filings are down 64%. And thanks for pointing out what may be the why systems do not divert more, money, to justify the existence of staff and judges and so forth. But here is the rub, we have not experienced a reduction in force because managing the diversion and ensuring that those much fewer youth who do require supervision receive the quality care on smaller caseloads, and that judges have more time in court fro those fewer youth who need to be there to exact procedural fairness and not be treated as a case number. It’s all about relationships. Thanks