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Never have California youth been more numerous (4.2 million age 10 – 17 in the 2010 census), more racially diverse (71% now are Hispanic, black, Asian, or otherwise of color), or of recent immigrant origin. Never have youth been more uncurfewed (lowest level of policing ever recorded), uncaged (the percentage of youth incarcerated in state and local facilities has plunged to an all-time low), and underserved (budget cuts have forced spending on a wide array of youth services). 

Never in post-Gold Rush history have young people been less likely to live in traditional families, spend time with adults, and observe a religion, or more likely to spend time with peers and access wildly untamed, explicit, globally connected media. And they’re not getting richer. New, 2010 census stats show poverty now afflicts 22% of California youth, up sharply over the last decade. 

More dark-skinned, poorer, unpoliced, unchurched, unsupervised, peer-driven, media-exposed kids running loose. By every conventional theory, California’s the definition of apocalypse, lord of the flies, wild in the streets, trouble comin’ every day. 

Yet… never – not since statewide reports were first compiled in 1954 – have California youth been LESS prone to serious or petty crime, 2010 statistics just released by the Attorney General’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center show. Or, less likely to suffer violent death, suicide and self-destructive demise, unwanted pregnancy, school dropout, and similar ills, according to state health and social agencies. 

That’s the beauty of journo-historian Carey McWilliams’ great exception.” Sooner or later, California wrecks everyone’s conventional theory. 

Back in the halcyon 1950s, when California’s kids were white, local, churchgoing, family-intact (or, as we now know, pre-divorce”), confined to watching chaste television with parents who liked Ike and drugs” meant cornsilk cigarettes and grape wine in a mason jar… juvenile arrests totaled around 9.0% of the juvenile teenage population, including 1.3% for felonies. 

In 2010, when the kids are racially diverse, access every form of salacious media available globally, and non-traditional in a plethora of ways, juvenile arrests totaled just 4.4% of the juvenile teen population, including 1.2% for felonies. 

The drop isn’t just in shoplifting and joyriding, the only crimes graying nostalgics (wrongly) think youths back in their day committed. In 1960, the first year detailed offense numbers were released, 434 California teenaged youth were arrested for murder or rape. In 2010, in a youth population two million larger, 399 – a rate decline of more than 50%. 

Youth crime fell fastest at the youngest ages. In 1980, 7,602 Californians under age 13 were arrested for felonies; in 2010, 2,346. In 1980, 33 that age were arrested for murder or rape; in 2010, five. But count on hearing a dozen times this year some media reporter mindlessly recycling some cop’s or politician’s baseless foolishness that kids today are committing worse crimes at younger ages.” 

These trends aren’t numerical tricks. Back in the 50s and Sixties, many youths were charged with vague delinquent tendencies” offenses and released without fingerprinting, leading to underreporting of crime numbers. If anything, expanded crime definitions (especially for domestic violence and rape) and improved investigation, policing, and reporting techniques should have led to increased arrests. 

Here’s my explanation, unsatisfying, I realize, but which fits the facts of a long term, across-the-board decline in youth crime among all races, both sexes, and in every county: it’s a generational trend, a reaction against the high crime and drug abuse rates of Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers. The same folks who never predicted it (and often denied it) will now try to take credit for it, but California’s youth crime plunge defies conventional explanation. If we want to help it continue, it’s time for some new thinking about crime.