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New Report: California Urban Crime Declined in 2020 Amid Social and Economic Upheaval

SAN FRANCISCO – June 29, 2021 – A new report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) finds that the COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to 2020’s erratic crime patterns. During this time period, some crimes increased and others declined. Overall, California’s urban crime rates fell by 7 percent from 2019 through 2020. Given the pandemic’s profound impact on the economy, social services, and community connectedness, a return to normalcy post-pandemic may also rebalance California’s crime landscape. 

California’s 2020 urban crime decline follows a decade of generally falling property and violent crime rates. From 2010 to 2020, crime rates in the state’s largest cities fell by 14 percent overall, including a 3 percent decrease in violent crime and a 16 percent decline in property crime. These declines coincided with the passage of criminal justice reforms, including Propositions 47 and 57, which have lessened penalties for low-level offenses and reduced prison and jail populations.

California urban crime rates, 2010 through 2020

Note: Total and violent offense rates exclude rape because the definition was broadened in 2014, hindering comparisons across this period.

The report finds:

  • California’s homicide trends mirror the increases occurring nationwide. Homicide rates increased across the nation in 2020, both in states that have implemented criminal justice reforms and those that have not. For example, of the 22 largest U.S. cities (populations over 500,000), nearly half had homicide rate increases that were larger than in the City of Los Angeles.

  • Black and Latino families bear the brunt of 2020’s rising rate of homicide. Los Angeles County’s stark racial and ethnic disparities in homicide victimization have persisted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between mid-April 2020–mid-April 2021, Black residents were 12.5 times more likely than white residents to be homicide victims in Los Angeles County.

  • Large-scale criminal justice reforms are not driving increased crime. The types of crimes that increased in 2020 are not the ones directly affected by California’s recent criminal justice reforms and are unlikely to reflect lagging effects of law changes implemented four to 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, the offenses whose rates fell in 2020 (larceny/theft) or remained the same (burglary) are those directly targeted by reforms.

  • Certain crimes appear related to the pandemic and its economic impacts. Cities with larger jumps in unemployment also saw larger increases in motor vehicle theft rates, and those with higher rates of COVID-19 infections tended to have larger declines or smaller increases in their rates of motor vehicle theft and burglary. This could reflect a number of local factors, including, potentially, differences in lockdown orders that kept cars in garages and people in their homes.

  • Most communities were safer in 2020 than at the start of the decade, despite claims that reform would erode public safety. Eighty percent of California’s cities showed declines in crime from 2010 through 2020. The variation that exists across California’s cities indicates that recent crime trends reflect local practices and conditions far more than state policies.

Given the speed with which the pandemic shuttered schools, workplaces, and sites of community connection, 2020 offers a unique window into the effects of isolation, job loss, business failure, and collective grief on community safety. It is likely that the pandemic had complex effects, exerting both downward and upward pressures on crime statistics. To meet the current crisis, it is critical that California cities boost investment in community-based services, mental health treatment, and violence reduction programs.


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Contact:
 For more information about this topic or to schedule an interview, please contact CJCJ Communications at (415) 621-5661 x. 103 or cjcjmedia@cjcj.org.

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