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Arrest Rate Plummets to Historic Low in California

SAN FRANCISCO, December 3, 2018—California’s arrest rate has declined by more than half since its peak in 1989, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). In the first statewide examination of long-term trends in the state, the report finds that the demographics of who is arrested have also changed. But even as racial disparities have narrowed, African Americans today are three times more likely to be arrested than whites.

The arrest rate for California has dropped 58 percent since 1989, reaching a historic low of 3,428 per 100,000 residents in 2016. About three-fourths of the decline is due to sharp drops in misdemeanor arrest rates, especially for traffic and alcohol-related offenses. Felony arrest rates for property and drug offenses also fell substantially.

“The past four decades have seen tremendous change in the criminal justice landscape in California, and arrest rates in the state fell precipitously,” said Magnus Lofstrom, coauthor of the report and a senior fellow at PPIC. “Broadly, the trend of declining arrest rates aligns with falling crime rates over the past few decades, though there have been fluctuations year to year.”

The report describes trends in arrests between 1980 and 2016—a time of large-scale changes in state and federal criminal justice laws. It is based on arrests and citations reported monthly by law enforcement agencies to the Criminal Justice Statistics Center at the California Department of Justice. Future PPIC research will explore factors that may contribute to these trends.

The report finds:

  • Individuals who are arrested tend to be nonwhite, younger, and male. In 2016, 41 percent of those arrested were Latino, 36 percent were white, and 16 percent were African American. African Americans were highly overrepresented: They made up 6 percent of the state’s population but 16 percent of arrests. In contrast, Latinos represented 39 percent of the population and 41 percent of arrests. Individuals ages 18–39 accounted for two-thirds of arrests, and men accounted for three-quarters.
  • Racial disparities have narrowed. But the disparity between African Americans and whites is still substantial: In 2016, African Americans were three times more likely than whites to be arrested, compared to 3.6 times as likely in the early 1990s. In contrast, Latinos were 1.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested in 2016, compared with 1.8 times more likely in the early ’90s.
  • Overall declines are mainly due to plummeting arrest rates for juveniles and young adults. From 1980 to 2016, the arrest rate among those age 17 or younger dropped by 84 percent, while the arrest rate among those ages 18–24 declined by 63 percent.
  • Women account for nearly a quarter of all arrests. This is up from 14 percent in the early 1980s. Arrest rates for violent offenses increased among women between 1980 and 2016: felony violent arrest rates declined 37 percent for men but increased 62 percent for women. Misdemeanor assault and battery arrest rates declined 25 percent for men but increased 67 percent for women.
  • Arrest rates vary substantially across counties. Those with the lowest rates tend to be large and urban, while counties with the highest rates are typically smaller and rural. There is notable variation across counties in the demographics of those arrested, but a large disparity exists between African Americans and whites in nearly all of them. Of the 49 counties examined, the African American arrest rate is at least double the white arrest rate in 45 counties, at least three times greater in 33 counties, at least four times greater in 21 counties, and at least five times greater in 13 counties.

The five counties with the highest arrest rates in 2016—including both felonies and misdemeanors—are Lake (7,906 annual arrests per 100,000 county residents), Siskiyou (6,862), Shasta (6,672), Trinity (6,559), and Butte (6,394). The lowest total arrest rates are found in Riverside (2,479), San Francisco (2,576), Santa Clara (2,603), Sacramento (2,797), and Los Angeles (2,800).

Accompanying the report, PPIC released an interactive tool that allows deeper exploration of arrest rates across California counties, as well as a fact sheet, Arrests in California.

The report is titled New Insights into California Arrests: Trends Disparities, and County Differences. It is supported with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. In addition to Lofstrom, the coauthors are PPIC research associates Brandon Martin, Justin Goss, and Joseph Hayes, and Steven Raphael, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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