My turn: Child crime is vanishing. Does anyone know why?

By Mike Males, Special to CALmatters

Here are the simple, startling trends in criminal arrests of children ages 12 and younger, from the first year the California Department of Justice released detailed statistics:

In 1978, there were 12,705 arrests.

In 2017, there were 777.

Allowing for a large increase in child populations, the average pre-teen today is 96 percent less likely to be arrested than his or her counterpart in past decades. Arrests of girls and boys of all ethnicity and race for violence, property, drug, vandalism, felony and misdemeanor offenses are down by huge proportions.

The kinds of crimes that bring cries of the imminent apocalypse when committed by very young assailants—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault—fell from 440 arrests in 1978 to 96 last year.

The massive drop in child crime unfolded as the ethnic make-up California’s children changed. Six in 10 were white in 1980. Today, three-fourths are nonwhite. The reductions occurred in all counties, urban and rural. Some had hardline strategies. Some were lenient. Some had no coherent anti-crime strategies. In lesser forms, these trends occurred across the country.

Further, the arrest rate for Californians ages 10 and younger fell by 98 percent, from 7,881 in 1978 to 234 in 2017. That suggests reductions will persist as a new generation of non-criminal children become teenagers and adults.

The massive plummet in crimes committed by children and teenagers, from 400,000+ arrests per year four decades ago to under 100,000 today, seems to have set off a scramble within a shrinking juvenile justice system.

Eight of 11 state juvenile facilities have closed. The Division of Juvenile Justice budget has been cut 70 percent, saving $400 million per year compared to 1995 costs. The number of youths in state and local detention has decreased from 20,000 in 1996 to under 5,000 today.

In 1980, six times more Californians under age 20 than age 50-59 were arrested. Last year, arrests of people 50 and older exceeded those of teenagers. It’s time to rewrite criminology texts.

For people who study and work in criminal justice, California’s trends are a revolution. Experts didn’t predict vanishing child crime; just the opposite. Authorities and commentators forecast a “crime storm” of ever-younger ”superpredators” led by murderous “seven-year-old (s)… wearing Reeboks.”

Yet, strangely, few in California’s vast justice establishment seem interested in why child crime plunged. That’s unfortunate. The phenomenon offers stellar opportunities for studying ways to reinforce the trends. Reforms have a lamentable history of backfiring and resulting in harsher treatments of youth. If alternatives are to be effective, we need new thinking to match new trends.

We don’t know why Millennials and Generation Z are vastly less likely to be arrested than Boomers and Gen X.

Theories include diminished lead toxicity in children’s systems; immigrants’ lower crime rates; gaming and online screen sublimations; and younger generations’ reaction against crime and drug abuse by older generations. Could the Environmental Protection Agency, immigration, and video games be our biggest crime fighters?

The recently enacted Senate Bill 439 abolishes formal prosecution of children under 12, except for the most serious violent crimes, and requires communities to develop alternative programs. Reforms could go further.

Well-designed non-intervention studies found seven in 10 young, nonviolent arrestees who are simply released without consequence do not re-offend, the same proportions as those who are prosecuted or referred.

We need to move away from past, one-size-fits-all notions like “age-appropriate,” “adolescent risk-taking,” and “mandatory minimum sentences,” many of which are based on premature, now-discredited “brain development” misnomers and refashion a more flexible system incorporating the individual criteria of the offender and offense.

As crime shifts from teens and young adults to aging drug abusers, thousands of adult offenders may also benefit from the individualized, tailored sentencings afforded by a “criterion-based” system rather than the rigid mandates of criminal courts. Young people have reduced crime spectacularly. We need informed and innovative leadership to perpetuate these gains.

Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and a former professor at UC Santa Cruz, [email protected] This is one in an occasional series of commentaries by Males about youth issues in California, written for CALmatters.

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