Most violent and property crimes fell last year, continuing an ongoing decline in California, according to statistics released this month by the state Attorney General. The trend toward a less violent society is not consistent across every region, but overall — and with a few exceptions — people are committing fewer crimes per capita today than a decade ago.
It’s true for nearly every crime category tracked by the California Department of Justice. The rate of rape cases has risen dramatically, however, in large part because law enforcement officials broadened the definition of the crime in 2013 and, experts say, people now are more likely to report their attack to law enforcement than in previous decades.
The dramatic drop in violent crime since a peak in the early 1990s has been the subject of intense study, but few criminologists and statisticians are willing to pinpoint a single cause. (Although eliminating leaded gasoline has some scientists intrigued.) More likely, a confluence of factors comes into play.
Looking back over decades, there are few clear and comprehensive answers as to why crime has dropped so much, said Magnus Lofstrom, a corrections expert and policy director at Public Policy Institute of California. One is definitely demographic: We’re an older society today than we were before, he said. Other factors could include the ebb and flow of drug markets, changes in policing and incarceration policies and sentencing rules.
“Overall, I don’t think that there is a satisfying and convincing answer to the longer-term trends that we’re experiencing,” Lofstrom said.
Many believed crime would spike after California underwent sweeping criminal justice reforms over the past decade. For one, Proposition 47 in 2014 reduced sentences for low-level drug and property crimes, alarming some local law enforcement authorities. Prison overcrowding forced many offenders into county jails. But although the state did see an increase in property crimes after enacting Proposition 47, that category dropped last year.
“What we’re seeing are two trends. One is a massive decline in violent crime involving younger offenders and the other is a small increase involving offenders over age 30,” said Mike Males, a senior research fellow with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.
“These two trends are converging and reducing an overall decline in violent crime arrests. It’s really remarkable and among younger people, it’s really plummeted.”
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Five years after the definition of rape was expanded to include men as victims, among other criteria, the number of cases continues to climb. Experts also say more victims have been willing to come forward to report their assaults to law enforcement, suggesting the number of cases was actually far higher in previous decades.
These changes mean the rape statistics are dramatically different than they were a decade ago.
“They became much more inclusive in their definition,” said Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington D.C. “It became much broader and that’s why you see that steep incline from 2013.”
The number of robberies was down by 4 percent compared with 2017.
Lofstrom of PPIC cautioned when reading the data on aggravated assaults after 2014. It was widely reported that the Los Angeles Police Department — one of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies — categorized a number of assault cases as a battery, according to an LA Times story.
After the correction, Lofstrom said the agency’s size influenced the broader state trend.
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