Study: CA decriminalization caused youth pot arrests to plunge 61 percent in one year

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, November 29, 2012 16:25 EDT
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Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) might have left his state’s fiscal house in utter disarray, but a study released Thursday finds that he also did California’s young people a huge favor by signing a bill decriminalizing marijuana.

In its October 2012 research brief (PDF), The Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) found that the governor’s agreement with the 2010 measure is directly linked to a 47 percent drop in adolescents ages 10-17 arrested on drug related offenses versus 2010′s statistics.

Overall, the study found that the decline in youth crime in California largely mirrors the overall decline in crime across the state since the 1950s. Even so, CJCJ research fellow Mike Males pointed specifically to marijuana decriminalization as leading to a 61 percent drop in small marijuana possession arrests from 2010 to 2011.

Interestingly, all other categories in the state’s Department of Finance crime reporting statistics saw significant declines from 2010-2011 as well. Arrests of young people for violent crime dropped 16 percent over 2010, and murder was down 26 percent. Property crimes were also down 16 percent, and rapes were down by 10 percent.

All together, California’s youth crime rate plunged an astonishing 20 percent in one year, the study concludes. Compared to the 1970s, as President Richard Nixon’s (R) drug war was getting underway in earnest, youth crime in California is down a whopping 68 percent — and Males even wrote that may be lowballing the estimate.

“Many youth offenses may have been hidden in the past, due to historic data collection limitations,” the study explains. “An average of 90,000 arrests per year in the 1950s, were reported as ‘delinquent tendencies,’ a broad category that included various violent, property, drug, and status offenses.”

While marijuana decriminalization can explain a significant portion of that decline, it doesn’t explain it all. The study goes through a variety of possible explanations as to why California’s youth crime rate has plunged so much faster than the rest of the nation, and concludes that changes in public policy have led to improved socioeconomic status for kids in communities where poverty is most concentrated, which typically see the highest rates of violent crime.

The study adds that the findings prove that “deincarceration of youth does not generate more crime. Finally, it concludes that the changes have saved California up to “at least $1 billion” per year, considering that “conservative cost estimates” place youth incarceration at about $100,000 per kid per year.

“The only two factors definitively associated with (or, at least, positively accompanying) the dramatic decline in youth arrests are the relaxing of marijuana possession laws and the improvement in economic well-being among young people in the state’s poorest neighborhoods,” Males wrote. “Cost savings resulting from the decrease in youth crime could be reinvested into enhanced education and employment opportunities for California’s young people to build on these trends.”

Photo: Flickr user Cannabis Culture, creative commons licensed.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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