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Why has crime plummeted?

*Notes: “Age 16-24” is a combination of trends for ages 16-19 and 18-24 pro-rated to their respective populations. “Status dropouts” refer to those who have not graduated and are not in school; “high school graduate” refers to those who have graduated or are in school. Owing to the differences in age groups and education levels used by the Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau for 1990 and 2013, figures in the graph are approximate.

Crime authorities still cannot explain why crime and violence plunged over the last 20 years, nor have they acknowledged its true nature: the massive crime decline among young people more than offset the massive crime increase among older ages.

The worst notions that need discarding are popular theories that blame crime on the age, ethnicity, and racial structure of the population. These demographic theories are great for podium-pounding demagoguery, but they sport a clownish record of misprediction and misplaced blame. Fervent champions of demographic determinism repeatedly predicted that crime, instigated by rising populations of youths of color, would skyrocket in the 2000s, generating a “crime storm” of “adolescent superpredators” and “teenage…sociopaths.”

Demographic theories are a bad joke. Consider California, where the supposedly crime-prone Latino and African American populations ages 15-24 surged to a record-high 3 million, alongside a 75 percent drop in youthful crime, an 80 percent decline in youth homicide, and a 60 percent drop in youthful incarcerations.

Whatever one’s theory – from get-tough laws and harsh imprisonment mandates to drug treatment and employment – they all fail to account for the unexpected patterns of the crime decline. If we want to understand why crime fell, we have to ask: What forces acted to reduce crime among people under age 25 of all races, and what same or other forces acted to increase crime among adults 35 and older?

Three possibly interrelated health, environmental, and social trends stand out: the large decline in lead toxin levels in recent generations, the enormous increase in drug abuse among middle-agers, and the massive increase in educational attainment among young people.

Previous blogs have discussed lead levels and drug abuse, so this one focuses on the remarkable increase in educational attainment by young people over the last 20 years. The decline in the proportion of young people who have not graduated from high school and are not enrolled in school (typically called “status dropouts”), alongside the corresponding increase in young people’s college attendance since 1990 (Table 1), may help to answer why crime has plummeted so dramatically.

In 1990, one-fourth of Californians age 16-24 were neither high school graduates nor attending school; in 2013 this “status dropout” proportion has fallen by an astonishing 60 percent to one in 10. Meanwhile, the proportion in college or graduating from college rose from 35 percent to 47 percent. Today, the young-adult population – the age group most likely to drop out before getting a high school diploma in 1990 – is now the least likely to drop out.

*Notes: “Age 16-24” is a combination of trends for ages 16-19 and 18-24 pro-rated to their respective populations. For age 16-19, “less than high school” refers to those “status dropouts” who have not graduated and are not in school; “high school graduate” refers to those who have graduated or are in school. Owing to the differences in age groups and education levels used by the Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau for 1990 and 2013, figures in Table 1 are approximate.

Table 1 further shows the importance of these educational trends and corroborates those of CJCJ’s earlier work on crime and poverty. Authorities often blame 16-24-year-olds for gun violence, but few mention that the rate in that age group has dropped dramatically, and five out of six youthful gun murders involve youth experiencing poverty levels of 20 percent or higher.

Similarly, nine in 10 homicides among those ages 16-24 involve those with a high school diploma or less. Meanwhile, college students and graduates, 47 percent of all teens and young adults, suffer just 11 percent of murders in their age group. A status dropout is more than 200 times more likely to be murdered than a college graduate.

The very high risks suffered by high-poverty, low-education populations (where homicide, drug abuse, and violent deaths among the young are concentrated) are what many authorities mislabel as “adolescent risk.” The stunning decline in the size of the low-education/dropout population over the last 20 years may explain why nearly every “adolescent risk” has plummeted to record-low levels.

That more education is strongly linked to lower crime and violence rates, as well as of other ills, with especially strong and consistent effects on young people raises more questions. Why did educational attainment rise so sharply in the Millennial generation, in spite of rampant legislative defunding of public schools, restricting of university classes, and imposing vastly greater debt on students today?

Why are young people today more inclined than past generations to succeed educationally? Is it internal personal motivation, external changes such as reduced lead exposure, or a combination? Does that inclination itself, along with tangible educational attainment, influence the risk of crime, murder, and other violence? We should have answers to these vital questions if we are to understand the best places to invest scarce resources. It appears that education and environmental improvements are better investments than the criminal justice and prison systems in preventing crime.

A more detailed version of this blog is posted on YouthFacts.org

Keywords: crime trends, education, safest generation, youth crime

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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