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California used to have a young-age crime problem. In 1980, seven in 10 serious, Part I violent and property offense arrests involved persons under age 25, as did more than half of all new imprisonments.

The prevailing anti-crime ideology of the 1980s and 1990s was that swift, stern punishment at young ages would make budding miscreants think twice before embarking on criminal careers. Over the next two decades, California increased the number of youth and young adults sent to Youth Authority (now the Division of Juvenile Justice) and Department of Corrections prison facilities by 74 percent.

Figure 1 shows that the get tough” strategy backfired. Arrests and imprisonments of adults in the 1980s and 1990s soared even faster than for youth.

Figure 1. New prison admission numbers, by age group, 1980, 1999, and 2016

Sources: CDCR (2018), CYA (2012), DJJ (2018).

New prison admissions nearly quadrupled, from 16,621 in 1980 to a peak of 62,207 in 1999. By the late 1990s, California faced severe overcrowding in its youth and adult prisons, mounting lawsuits, and budget overruns, along with a rapidly increasing population of aging offenders, many with problematic substance use, cycling in and out of custody.

In response, California lawmakers and voters instituted juvenile and adult system reforms to alleviate the overcrowding crisis. Prison admissions fell sharply, down to 35,930 in 2016. By 2016, individuals under 25 were the only age group to show fewer admissions to the Division of Juvenile Justice and CDCR prisons than in 1980 (down 6 percent). While reforms have brought down imprisonments considerably since the 1999 peak, ages 25 – 44 still show a tripling, and ages 45 and older a seven-fold increase, in new prison admissions in 2016 compared to 1980.

Why have newly-admitted individuals at California’s correctional facilities aged so dramatically? Primarily because the population getting arrested has also aged substantially. In 1980, youth under 25 comprised 69 percent of those arrested for Part I violent and property felonies; in 2016, just 33 percent. Part I arrests of youth under 25 fell from 229,000 in 1980 to 73,000 in 2016 even as the age 15 – 24 population rose by 1.3 million.

Meanwhile, Part I felonies rose among older ages, from 87,000 in 1980 to 111,000 in 2016 among ages 25 – 44, and from 16,000 to 38,000 among ages 40 and older. California’s age-crime curve” has shifted radically since 1980, with arrests plummeting at younger ages by 45 to 90 percent while remaining static among older ages (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Part I arrests as percent of population by age group, 2016 vs. 1980

Source: FBI (2018).

The combination of population increases and steady arrests along with the accumulation of criminal records with age have led to a distinctly older prison population. Today, youth under 25 comprise just 22 percent of new prison admissions, down from 52 percent in 1980 (Figure 2). More newly-admitted individuals are over 45 today than under 25 years old.

Figure 3. Percent of new prison admissions by age group, 2016 vs. 1980

Sources: CDCR (2018), CYA (2012), DJJ (2018).

Juvenile justice reform has accompanied very positive results. The number of teenagers behind bars in juvenile facilities and adult prisons has fallen by 86 percent over the last two decades, commensurate with the decline in juvenile arrests. Additionally, 8 of 11 state juvenile facilities have closed, the state juvenile justice budget has fallen by 70 percent, and local police have reduced enforcement of curfews, truancy, and other status offenses by 82 percent.

Sources: CDCR (2018), CYA (2012), DJJ (2018).

Hundreds of thousands more youth are on the streets today, policed less than ever. Meanwhile, California crime rates hover near historic lows.

Nothing illustrates the spectacular changes in California crime more than this trend: In 1980, six times more Californians under age 20 than age 50 – 59 were arrested. In 2016, more Californians ages 50 – 59 (123,000) than under age 20 (112,000) were arrested.

This is a development traditional crime authorities insist simply cannot happen, and, as a result, decision-makers are at risk of disrupting highly favorable youth trends. For reasons unrelated to real trends, Governor Brown’s budget proposes increased spending on the state youth prison system, including a proposal to expand eligibility to a new population of young adults.

However, the challenge today is not expanding juvenile and young-adult justice systems during a time of plunging young-age crime. Forty years of data show young people function best when the system leaves them alone and policy makers enhance their education opportunities.

Rather, California’s realignment and drug-policy reforms have begun to support local initiatives that reintegrate California’s aging, drug-involved population whose serious needs were ignored due to past mistakes. Rather than perpetuating these mistakes by investing resources in unneeded prisons for youth and young adults based on obsolete assumptions, California needs to focus on today’s urgent priority: expanding local treatment and rehabilitation.

Related Links

California Youth Continue to Bring Steep Declines in Juvenile Arrests

Violent Crime Arrests of Youth in California Expected to Decline Through 2020

2018 – 19 Budget Proposal Would Expand California’s Youth Correctional System at a Time of Falling Populations