Does Decriminalization Work? Dramatic Decrease in California Marijuana Arrests Has Some Analysts Saying Yes

Marijuana possession arrests in California plummeted by 86 percent following the passage of a law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug, according to recently-released data from the Criminal Justice Statistics Center. Arrests fell from 54,900 in 2010 to just 7,800 in 2011.

Mike Males, of the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, said the law may “prove much more effective in reducing simple marijuana arrests than Proposition 19, or Washington’s and Oregon’s marijuana legalization initiatives passed this year.” Nationwide, he said, the current trend toward legalization might cut total marijuana arrests by half.

In California, felony arrests for marijuana sales and manufacturing dropped from 16,600 in 2010 to 14,100 in 2011, a decrease of 17 percent for adults and 10 percent for young people. Additionally, from 2010 to 2011, the total number of marijuana arrests in the state plummeted by 70 percent. In 2011, youth arrests for other drugs declined by almost 25 percent.

“Marijuana reform does not appear to have affected other crimes,” Males states. “For all ages, both sexes, and all races except older whites, felony and violent crime arrests rates declined from 2010 to 2011, with much larger drops among youths than among adults.”

Photo by Torben Bjørn Hansen courtesy of Flickr. 

California Juvenile Arrests at 50-year Low

New numbers released by the Criminal Justice Statistics Center indicate that last year, California posted its lowest number of juvenile arrests in more than half a century.

The 2011 total of 149,563 juvenile arrests is the lowest annual tally since 1957; the first year statewide records were kept.

Even when accounting for a larger youth population in the state, recent figures indicate California teens are less likely to be arrested for severe crimes, such as murder and rape, than young people 50 years ago. Since the 1970s, youth crime has been on a downward spiral in the Golden State, with the number of violent offenses perpetrated by juveniles plummeting by 50 percent over the last four decades.

With reports from all 58 counties analyzed, researchers noted a 17 percent decrease in California juvenile arrests from 2010 to 2011, with violent and property offenses dropping by 16 percent, and status and misdemeanor offenses dropping by 21 percent. Overall, juvenile murder arrests plunged by 26 percent over the one-year window.

Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) senior research fellow Mike Males said that it’s difficult to pinpoint one factor that explains such a dramatic statistical decrease.

“We looked at law changes,” he said, “if anything, with one exception, laws expanded to include more people than they would in the past.”

The exception that Males notes is a recent change in the state’s marijuana laws, in which misdemeanor possession was reduced to an infraction as opposed to an offense that results in arrest. That policy change, he said, may account for as much as a quarter of the decrease in juvenile arrests over the last year.

In assessing contributing social factors to the decline, Males said the most apparent influence has been the decrease in the total number of youths living in concentrated areas of poverty within the state.

“The problem is, this juvenile crime drop has not been talked about,” he said. “We have to start changing the whole way we think about criminal offending by age, and especially get away from these emotional depictions of juvenile crime based on single, horrific incidents.”

With the newfound statistics in mind, Males said it’s time for social stakeholders to reassess the issue of juvenile justice. “I think we have to stop talking about youth as a crime-prone population,” he concluded.