According to the CA Attorney General’s Open Justice Database, nearly every category of crime in CA has decreased substantially across the board. Violent and property offenses, which account for the majority of CA prisoners, has decreased in both overall number and rate per population. CA’s property crime rate (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny-theft) declined dramatically between 1982-2014 for each offense. Burglary decreased by 74%, motor vehicle theft by 41%, and larceny-theft by 59%. Since 1980, CA has also experienced a dramatic decrease in its violent crime rate (homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault). In comparing 1982 to 2014, rates for homicide decreased by 61%, rape by 52%, robbery by 66%, and aggravated assault by 37%.
In 2015, the arrest rate in California overall was 4.4% lower than the arrest rate in 2014. The majority of the decline was due to a 17.1% decline in juvenile arrests. The felony arrest rate decreased by 29%, while the total misdemeanor arrest rate increased by 8.8%. 45.4% of misdemeanor arrests were either alcohol or drug-related. 66.9% of felony arrests resulted in a conviction.
The simple equation that more crime leads to more arrests and thus to more convictions and prisoners is cast in doubt by these recent statistics. Crime is lower than it’s been in nearly half a century, but prison admission rates have not seen a similar drop in response. It’s true that CA prisons have dropped from a peak of 173,000 inmates in 2007 to 118,560 in 2017, but this is due to Realignment, changes to the Three Strikes law, and Prop 47 (with Prop 57 soon to contribute to reducing prison populations). These changes have occurred irrespective of falling crime rates.
Prosecutorial behavior is almost impossible to study with any accuracy, but it seems like the logical place to start for trying to unpack this current paradox. Prosecutors are the gatekeepers of prison admissions, but they are directly elected and we’ve seen how politically popular tough on crime rhetoric is. It seems safe to assume that most Californians would be surprised to learn crime is exceptionally low. Media representations of crime are partially to blame, but a larger culture of fear seems particularly onerous in compounding these issues. It’s almost as if CA is governing through crime.