As California becomes more diverse, youth arrests continue to plummet

Arrest rates of Sacramento County children dropped 98 percent in 33 years

Contrary to the ramblings of redneck uncles everywhere, the browning of California hasn't resulted in a lawless dystopia.

Quite the opposite, actually.

A new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice—echoing the latest data from the state's Attorney General's Office—has uncovered “an enormous decline in arrests among the youngest Californians” over a three-decade time span that correlates with an increasingly diverse populace.

While the report doesn't name diversity as the reason for declining arrests (the trend was also accompanied by positive developments in graduation rates, college enrollment, violent-death rates and health trends), it points out that neither did it result in the Chicken Little belief that kids have grown more delinquent.

As senior research fellow Michael Males writes in the conclusion, “few in 1980 would have predicted that as the young population became increasingly non-white over the three decades to come, child arrests would plummet by 93 percent.”

But that’s exactly what happened. And in Sacramento County, arrest rates fell 98 percent for children under the age of 10 between 1980 and 2013.

Statewide, the CJCJ report shows that the numbers were no fluke—and hit every category, from misdemeanors to violent crimes like murder and rape, and applied to both males and females and all races, with Latinos accounting for the biggest improvement.

But that runs counter to the stubborn narrative when it comes to youth. For instance, Males says the fear of black youth proved “pivotal” in justifying the deaths of both Trayvon Martin, in Florida, and Michael Brown in Missouri. “The claim that ‘youth are becoming more violent at younger ages’ is a constant refrain for at least a century, even in eras (such as today) when it is manifestly false,” he wrote in an email.

The report found steep declines in arrest rates of children under 12, but also found they dropped sharply for adolescents, teens and even young adults. The arrests of older adults charted a different direction, however, increasing modestly for those ages 25 and older since 2010.

While noting that much research remains to be conducted on the causes, author Males suggests the plunge in youth arrests reflects “a real drop in child and youth crime,” rather than changes in policy, policing or how the state keeps records. That’s because California’s 58 counties approach juvenile justice and education in different ways.

“I realize that virtually any jurisdiction could point to some approaches taken, but the question would then become why youth crime declined in areas with different approaches, or no coherent approaches at all,” he told SN&R. “Until some hard evidence from controlled research showing policy efficacy is forthcoming, we are crediting youth themselves with the improvements.”

The one exception he points to is the Stockton Unified School District, where “a policy of arrest-oriented school policing” correlates to higher child arrests than in any other area of the state, Males said.

In Sacramento County, probation officials have made it a point in recent years to partner with school districts, social workers and community-based providers to steer children out of juvenile hall and prevent their removal from their homes. That has accompanied a 41 percent slide in juvenile felony arrests between 2004 and 2014—from nearly 1,500 to about 600—state data shows.

Currently, there are approximately 3,300 minors under the jurisdiction of the local probation department, with less than 6 percent of them—about 190—housed in the department’s Youth Detention Facility.

“The community-based interventions we’ve implemented to serve Sacramento County youth are proven strategies to keep kids from getting re-arrested and returned to custody,” Assistant Chief Probation Officer Mike Shores said in a release.

While the CJCJ report says the data “strongly indicates” a reduction in “criminal behavior among the state's youngest individuals,” it allows that local strategies should be considered in jurisdictions that can “point to proactive policies.”

It also warns the juvenile justice system from investing in “unnecessarily large facilities” or implementing other initiatives without further examining the causes, especially since black youth remain much more likely to be arrested than kids of other races.