Between 2010 and 2011, California experienced a drastic 20 percent decrease in juvenile crime--bringing the underage crime rate to the lowest level since the state started keeping records in 1954.
According to a recently released study, much of that improvement can be credited to the decriminalization of marijuana.
The study, entitled "California Youth Crime Plunges to All-Time Low" and released by the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, looked at the number of people under the age of 18 who were arrested in the state over the past eight decades. The research not only found juvenile crime to be at its lowest level ever but, in the wake of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signing a bill reducing the punishment for possessing a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor to simply an infraction, the drop in rates was particularity significant.
In that one-year period, the number of arrests for violent crimes dropped by 16 percent, homicide went down by 26 percent and drug arrests decreased by nearly 50 percent.
The category of drug arrests showed decreases in every type of crime; however, the vast majority of the drop resulted from far fewer arrests for marijuana possession. In 2010, marijuana possession accounted for 64 percent of all drug arrests, and in 2011, that number decreased to only 46 percent.
California's drop in serious youth crime has decreased faster than in the rest of the nation.
The study's authors discount a host of explanations as to why juvenile crime has dropped so precipitously (such as changes in the way the statistics are gathered, demographic changes, harsher sentences acting as a deterrent and other cultural factors like family connections). They assert that only two major factors explain the trend: the loosening of marijuana laws and improvements in the economic well-being of California's youth.
California’s 2010 law did not legalize marijuana, but it officially knocked down "simple" possession of less than one ounce to an infraction from a misdemeanor--and it applies to minors, not just people over 21. Police don’t arrest people for infractions; usually, they ticket them. And infractions are punishable not by jail time, but by fines--a $100 fine in California in the case of less than one ounce of pot.
"I think it was pretty courageous not to put an age limit on it," said Males, a longtime researcher on juvenile justice and a former sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Arresting and putting low-level juvenile offenders into the criminal-justice system pulls many kids deeper into trouble rather than turning them around, Males said, a conclusion many law-enforcement experts share.
"We haven't seen this low of a number since 1970," Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Don Meyer told Rosemont Patch. "We now get an average of seven [juveniles] a day, and that's come down from 20 a day."
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