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New Insights into California Arrests: Trends, Disparities, and County Differences

Summary

Crime, policing, and community relations are the subject of heated debate in California and nationwide. Decisions made by local law enforcement are often at the heart of the controversy. Though California’s criminal laws are determined by the state’s legislature and voters, local agencies and officers have broad discretion over enforcement, especially when it comes to lower-level offenses. To inform the broader conversation about policing and community relations, this report describes trends in arrests—the very first step in the criminal justice process—in California between 1980 and 2016. We find:
  • The arrest rate in California has dropped 58 percent since a peak in 1989. The arrest rate reached a low of 3,428 per 100,000 residents in 2016. About three-fourths of this decline is due to sharp drops in misdemeanor arrests, especially for traffic and alcohol-related offenses. Felony arrest rates for property and drug offenses also fell substantially. Arrest rates declined across racial/ethnic, age, and gender groups.
  • Arrested individuals tend to be nonwhite, younger, and male. In 2016, 41 percent of all arrests were of Latinos, 36 percent were of whites, and 16 percent were of African Americans. Individuals ages 18–39 accounted for two-thirds of arrests, and men accounted for three-quarters. African Americans were highly overrepresented: African Americans made up 6 percent of the state’s population but 16 percent of arrests in 2016, while Latinos represented 39 percent of the population and 41 percent of arrests.
  • Racial disparities have narrowed over time. But the disparity between African Americans and whites remains substantial. In 2016, the arrest rate among African Americans was three times that of whites, compared to 3.6 times as large in the early ‘90s. The arrest rate among Latinos was 1.1 times higher than the white arrest rate in 2016, compared to 1.8 times as large in the early ʾ90s.
  • Overall declines in arrests are driven primarily by plummeting arrest rates for juveniles and young adults. From 1980 to 2016, the arrest rate among those 17 or younger dropped by 84 percent, while the arrest rate among those ages 18–24 declined by 63 percent.
  • Women now account for nearly a quarter of all arrests. This is up from 14 percent in the early 1980s. Arrest rates for violent offenses have increased among women between 1980 and 2016: felony violent arrest rates declined 37 percent for men but increased 62 percent for women, while misdemeanor assault and battery arrest rates declined 25 percent for men but increased 67 percent for women.
  • Counties with the lowest arrest rates tend to be large and urban, while counties with the highest arrest rates tend to be smaller and rural. There is notable county variation in the demographics of those arrested. However, nearly all counties see a large disparity between African Americans and whites: 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.
Future PPIC research will explore possible contributing factors to these trends and regional differences—which may be affected by crime rates, demographics, poverty, fiscal conditions, jail capacity, law enforcement staffing and policing, and criminal justice reforms. In addition, we will examine local law enforcement discretion regarding the decision to cite and release individuals following arrest or to book them into jail. As the state continues its efforts to monitor police interactions with the public, this research provides a critical, fact-based foundation to frame constructive and solutions-oriented discussions regarding local law enforcement decisions and their implications for equity and public safety.
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