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Just released Criminal Justice Statistics Center 2008 crime numbers and Center for Health Statistics 2007 death figures deal a double whammy to three decades of California’s criminal justice failure. But first, the ironies.

The 2008 figures show California’s crime index (key offenses reported to police) stands at its lowest level since 1963, including the lowest rates of homicide in 40 years. Among youth, 2008 arrest rates continue the trend of the last seven years, with felony rates at their lowest level since statistics were first kept in 1955 and record-low overall arrest rates around half the level of the 1950s. For every race and both sexes, youth crime rates are at their lowest trough since reliable records have been kept.

That’s great, right? Hell, no! As everyone in the crime biz knows, this is terrible news. All the Big P” interests – police, prisons, prosecutors, programs, PhDs, press – have built lucrative publicity and funding careers hyping spiraling crime and violent youth. Everyone needs kids to shoot, rob, drug, and burn more. When the little bastards defy us by acting better, everyone collaborates to manufacture the myth that teen mayhem is rising anyway. Note recent law enforcement scare initiatives, CNN/​Anderson Cooper’s mean-spirited crusade concocting some new culture of youth violence,” the crap about girl crime,” on and on.

After a decade of analyzing crime trends in cities and states all over the country, we at CJCJ can confidently say: no one knows what makes crime go up or down. Crime was high in the 1960s and 70s, low in the 1980s, high in the early 1990s, and has plunged since then virtually everywhere – from get-tough New York to messed-up Los Angeles, from brutal Chicago to love-in San Francisco, from Boston’s miracle” to Phoenix’s beatdown. We do know poorer people get arrested more than richer people… not exactly new.

We also know that spending lots of money locking up lots of small-timers doesn’t work any better than spending less money locking up fewer, more serious criminals. Texas nearly doubled and California drastically slashed juvenile prison population over the last decade. Result? The two states experienced identical declines in serious juvenile crime. California imprisoned record tens of thousands of middle-agers and cut its youth inmate numbers by 80% since 1990. Result? Middle-aged crime skyrocketed and youth crime plummeted. That authorities can’t scientifically demonstrate their pet strategies work better than doing nothing or the opposite doesn’t stop the savvier ones from rushing to the press with self-praising sound bites (and then rushing back out the next week demanding more money because crime’s up).

Of course, fair is fair”: those who would own crime decreases should also own crime increases. California’s new 2007 and 2008 figures contain some truly bad news as well: the aging crime and drug abuse waves continue to crest. Here, we have a pretty good idea what went wrong. Conservatives in power fought the 1980s and 1990s middle-aged drug and crime surge by tossing tens, then hundreds of thousands in prison for longer periods – which, it turns out, actually worsens addiction (who could have known?). Liberals ignored the crisis altogether and still do. In 2007, a record 4,100 Californians died from overdoses of illicit drugs, triple the number in 1980. Now we have what no one thought possible: a burgeoning 40- and 50-age crime epidemic, whose felony totals rocketed from 22,000 in 1980 to 112,000 in 2008.

How has California law enforcement attacked this graying crime scourge driven by surging abuse of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, pills, and booze? By drastically boosting arrests for one particular offense… wait for it… misdemeanor marijuana possession. Note carefully: arrest rates for violent crimes, property offenses, felony drug sales, all other drugs, all felonies, all misdemeanors – that is, virtually everything else – declined (often sharply) over the last 15 years. But arrests of Californians for simple marijuana possession rocketed from 21,000 in 1990 to 61,000 in 2008 – a population-adjusted rate leap of 127%.

Where did this lunatic strategy come from? Granted, there’s a massive aging drug crisis bellowing for attention, but it’s not pot. Meanwhile, crime clearance reports show that in 2008, law enforcement FAILED to solve 43% of all reported murders, 58% of reported rapes, and 57% of felony violent crimes – one of the worst years for policing on record.

We can’t afford more low-priority arrests. Local jails now release 17,000 inmates a month early due to overcrowding. We need to free local jail and state prison space for serious offenders – not just to address today’s budget crisis, but also to advance sound crime policy. If police agencies insist on chasing around doobie puffers, curfew violators, and harmless misdemeanants when they have overpacked jails and dozens of unsolved murders, legislators and local commissioners should start setting enforcement priorities for them.

There’s no simple solution to reducing petty arrests and reserving jail and prison space for the worst offenders. Reforming drug and alcohol laws to target truly dangerous behaviors instead of indulging morality crusades is a critical necessity. But reform should be comprehensive and follow careful study. California should not perpetuate past mistakes of piecemeal legislating according to the latest polls, lobbying tactics, and media crusades surrounding this or that favored or demonized drug, crime, or population. When the unintended consequence of conservatives’ more cops more arrests” measures is that more inmates get released early due to overcrowding, and when liberal reforms” wind up locking up more people as police target more vulnerable populations, it’s time to think harder about how we get into these messes.