Crime rates generally peak during the late teen years and early 20s, but recent declines in arrests among juveniles and young adults raise questions about possible generational shifts in offending. Last week, PPIC senior fellow Magnus Lofstrom outlined findings from a new report examining whether younger generations of Californians are less criminally active than earlier generations and discussed the broader implications of these trends.
The report, coauthored with research associate Brandon Martin and research fellow Deepak Premkumar, shows that violent felony arrest rates for young adults have dropped by more than 50% over the last 25 years—and this decrease started with the generation born in the early 1990s. For those born in 1993 and after, the violent felony arrest rate has fallen 20–25% below that of earlier generations. Studies from Chicago and New York suggest that the changes are not unique to California.
Other risky behaviors among teens, such as alcohol use and teen pregnancy, are on a downward trend as well. Meanwhile, screen time has gone up. The report did not identify causal factors behind the decline in offending, but these coinciding patterns raise the possibility that “changes in interaction and socialization might have had one positive impact, including less risky behavior,” said Lofstrom.
Though fewer individuals among younger generations are being arrested for violent felonies, the frequency of offending has risen by about 5% over the last decade. This uptick has not been limited to any particular generation or age group. Lofstrom noted that though this might seem like a modest increase, “we do need to take this seriously” as it represents several thousand more violent felony offenses and is a deviation from longstanding patterns.
The higher frequency of offending might pose challenges for counties, which now face greater responsibility for rehabilitation programs following realignment and changes in the juvenile justice system. “Monitoring [this trend] and ensuring that counties are in a position to address these challenges are key,” said Lofstrom.
Looking ahead, decreases in violent crime among younger generations suggest the potential for lower future capacity needs, which could affect law enforcement, prisons, jails, and courts. In addition, risk assessment tools, which are commonly used by criminal justice agencies to assess individuals’ risk of reoffending and to improve community reentry, should take into account this generational shift in criminal activity. Otherwise, “they might overpredict criminal offending and risk, especially among younger individuals born in more recent years,” said Lofstrom.
The research is based on violent felony arrest data in California between 1980 and 2020. Some common violent felonies include domestic violence, aggravated assault, and robbery. Due to the pandemic’s impact on arrests, the report focused on trends through 2019. One open question is whether the findings hold up amid recent increases in violent and property crimes. “Is this trend continuing, halting, or reversing in any sense? That’s certainly a good question for future research,” said Lofstrom. “[As is] the extent to which this pattern holds for other kinds of offenses.”