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The Incomplete Story Told by California's Declining Juvenile Arrest Rates

12/12/2012 12:20 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2013

A recent study from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) demonstrates that decriminalization of marijuana can actually improve our children's futures while saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

In 2011, Senate Bill 1449 was implemented, which reduced the punishment for simple marijuana possession from a misdemeanor criminal offense to a civil infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $100. Data from the California Department of Justice's Criminal Justice Statistics Center for 2011 reveals an impressive 20 percent decrease in overall youth arrests in the state compared to the previous year, and a 60 percent decrease in marijuana arrests. The CJCJ analysis determined that the "largest contributor to [the overall] decrease was a drop of 9,000 in youths' low-level marijuana possession arrests" since the passage of SB 1449.

Thanks to decriminalization in California, 9,000 kids avoided an initial contact with the criminal justice system that could have irrevocably thrown their lives off course. It is well established that juveniles who have been incarcerated face a greater risk of committing future offenses than those who have never been in custody; further, they often commit a more serious offense after their release. SB 1449 clearly reduces the probability of this unnecessary and harmful initial contact with the criminal justice system, thereby reducing the risk of youth slipping into a lifetime cycle of criminality and incarceration.

The astounding 47 percent decrease in overall youth drug arrests revealed by this report also indicates that a large majority of young people being swept into the system are not violent criminals or drug kingpins -- they are guilty only of possessing a small quantity of marijuana for personal use.

As juvenile crime rates have decreased in California, so have incarceration rates, which underscores the reality that it is indeed possible to increase public safety and simultaneously decrease the number of people behind bars. Reduced crime rates and smaller prison populations are not mutually exclusive.

The social benefits to juveniles in California are only part of the larger beneficial picture of SB 1449. Because the passage of this bill has dramatically reduced the number of youths entering California's criminal justice system, the state is reaping fiscal benefits as well. Sparing the debt-stricken state the expense of arresting, incarcerating, and later supervising youth on parole or probation has meant an annual savings of $1 billion, according to conservative estimates.

While these statistics are promising, they don't tell the entire story. The benefits of decriminalization in California are myriad, but it is essential to remember that reducing the penalty for simple marijuana possession from an arrest to a citation does not address the racially biased policing and selective enforcement of marijuana laws that has disproportionately wreaked havoc on the lives of Californians of color.

Arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana disproportionately impact Blacks and Latinos in California and across the country, despite the fact that whites use marijuana at similar or higher rates. Even if law enforcement no longer responds with an arrest, individuals are still stopped, and those possessing small amounts of marijuana are still punished.

Because data is not routinely collected on non-criminal infractions, they can be used to harass black and brown youth with little oversight. And infractions can also be a backdoor to incarceration: youth with little financial means who are unable to pay a fine associated with an infraction can ultimately end up with jail time. Moreover, these punishments, citations, and fines will continue to disparately impact people of color until the root causes of racially biased policing, prosecution, and sentencing disparities are addressed.

As we rightfully celebrate California's drop in juvenile crime and arrest rates, it is imperative that the bigger picture remain in focus. By eliminating this opportunity for a misdemeanor offense while reducing crime rates, Californians have proven that a large percentage of people our justice system once identified as "criminal" pose no real threat to public safety. Still, reducing the penalty for marijuana possession is but one piece of the larger puzzle of mass incarceration and racially biased policing that continues to devastate our communities and deplete precious resources.

For initiatives like SB 1449 to make a broader positive impact, they must be coupled with carefully crafted policies and training of law enforcement that directly addresses racial profiling. Until these goals are addressed in tandem, our criminal justice system will fail to serve all Americans, and will continue to disproportionately have a negative impact on communities of color.

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