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American Conservative publisher Ron Unz has always taken a refreshingly wonkish approach to public policy. His latest, His-Panic, compares national imprisonment and urban crime rates involving Latinos versus other US populations to challenge talk TV sensationalists and axe-grinding ideologues who have fallen for a myth of immigrant lawlessness.” Unz’s findings have fueled outrage among anti-immigrant forces. 

CJCJ has taken a different approach to analyzing crime, but our conclusions strongly support Unz’s. If the often-postulated crime wave by immigrants (legal, illegal. or their second generation children”) exists, it should be devastating California. According to Public Policy Institute reports, 9.9 million Californians were born abroad (27% of the state’s population in 2006), one in four illegal immigrants are in California (2.7 million), and the illegal population grew by 1.5 million from 1990 to 2006

Since 56% of the legal and 90% of the illegal immigrant population is Hispanic, an immigrant crime wave should manifest itself in burgeoning arrests and imprisonments among Hispanics centered in the high-immigration young-adult ages. We used California Criminal Justice Statistics Center data to analyze trends in population-adjusted arrest rates by race (Latino vs. White), age, and crime (all felonies, violent offenses, and drug offenses) for three time periods (2008 vs. 1980, 1990, and 2000) (see table at end).

Our conclusions were stunning. Even amid rapid increases in immigration (and even without factoring in the growth in illegal immigrant populations), Latinos still show considerably less growth in arrest over time (both in percentage change and absolute change) for every age level and type of offense than population growth would predict. Indeed, it appears that massive immigration has accompanied an unusually large reduction in Latino crime rates much more dramatic than among non-Hispanic Whites.

Since 1980, Latino felony arrest rates (down 673 per 100,000 Latinos, or ‑26%) have fallen much faster than among Whites (down 171, or ‑13%). For violent felonies, White rates actually increased since 1980 (up 15%), while Latino rates fell (-29%). And the increase in drug arrests for Whites (up 37%) was much higher than for Latinos (up 21%).

Breaking down races into age groups revealed another surprise: California really is suffering a middle-aged crime wave. For each race, declines in arrest rates among younger ages have offset arrest increases among older ages for violent crime and all felonies, and the increase in drug arrests among the young has been considerably less than for older ages. Young Latinos have led the decline in felonies (down 1,117 arrests per 100,000 population since 1980, or ‑30%), while older whites have led the arrest surge (up 445, or +89%). Similar patterns are evident for violent crime, state imprisonment, national imprisonment, and comparisons involving other years (i.e., 2008 versus 1990).

What conclusions can be drawn from examining these and larger crime trends? First, California’s (and America’s, FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics reports show) worst crime and imprisonment problem is home-grown, driven by U.S. citizens whose parents were citizens and who have lived here many decades. Second, from an international perspective, the U.S.‘s ongoing failure to control our aging drug abuse epidemic (drug control institutions estimate the US consumes 60% of the world’s illicit drug supply) is a major genesis of serious crime here and abroad, rendering Americans’ complaints about immigrant crime and border-area drug violence dubious indeed.

Change in California’s crime rates per 100,000 population by age and race, 2008 vs. 1980

Change:All racesAll felonies Violent crimes Drug offensesAll ages<3030+ All ages<3030+ All ages<3030+ Percent-16%-28%+61% ‑6%-14%+44% +30%+3%+172% Absolute-308.5 – 965.6+444.628.7104.2+89.7 +207.5+31.0+440.4White Percent-13%-30%+89% +15%-2%+81% +37%+10%+246% Absolute-170.7 – 756.3+417.7 +34.3 – 6.9+95.6 +206.9+106.8+402.0Latino Percent-26%-30%+29% ‑29%-31%+11% +21%+16%+82% Absolute-672.8 – 1,116.5+279.0205.9314.2+33.8 +159.8+167.0+292.5“Percent” change refers to the crime rate (arrests per 100,000 population) in 2008 divided by the crime rate in 1980; absolute” change refers to the crime rate in 2008 minus the crime rate in 1980. Consistent with Criminal Justice Statistics Center parameters, the population used for age <30 is 10 – 29; for age 30+, 30 – 69; for all ages, 10 – 69. All races” includes Black, Asian, Native, and other races not shown separately. The complete Excel file is available from Mike Males, CJCJ.Source: Criminal Justice Statistics Center (2010). Crime in California, 1980 – 2008 (annual). California Department of Justice.