Social trends among California youth have been spectacular. Over the last generation, rates of arrests of Californians under age 20 have fallen by 80 percent, murder arrest by 85 percent, gun killings by 75 percent, imprisonments by 88 percent, births by teen mothers by 75 percent, and school dropout by more than half while college enrollments have risen 45 percent.
Back in 1980, teenagers comprised 27 percent of California’s criminal arrests. Today, 9 percent. Anecdotes of kids gone wrong remain, but they’re rarer than ever.
We now live in a state where fewer under-20 than 50-59-year-olds are getting arrested for criminal offenses (including “dumb crimes” like low-level thefts, drunken and drugged misbehaviors, and assaults). That’s unheard-of.
Teenage improvements occurred as the state’s youth population grew by over half a million and became more of color (73 percent are now nonwhite). Younger millennials and Generation Z youth no longer resemble the stereotypical wild, crazy “teenager” of lore.
The circumstances surrounding the massive drop in teenage troubles are both hopeful and disturbing. They occurred as teenagers became more racially diverse, vastly more interconnected via online technologies, and less exposed to environmental toxins such as lead – especially in the state’s burgeoning cities, where the biggest improvements in youth behavior are concentrated.
Some youth trends are so surprising as to appear impossible. For example, in California’s 15 largest cities (including Sacramento) where 1.1 million adolescents dwell, state Department of Justice reports show that from 1990 to 2016, arrests of youths for murder fell from 373 to 29. Centers for Disease Control figures show teenage gun homicides fell by 80 percent.
Modern youth trends challenge traditional theories of what makes teenagers act better. Family stability and adult behaviors have not improved; in fact, epidemics of drug abuse, criminal arrest, and incarceration plague middle ages (the parents of adolescents). High levels of poverty among youth remain.
Teenagers are exposed to more explicit information and influences at younger ages with fewer controls. Schools have become more crowded; college costs and student debt have skyrocketed. Fewer young people express interest in religion or seek more time with grownups.
Policies seem to mean little. On one hand, state and local jurisdictions have implemented a lighter touch. Arrests for youth-control measures like curfew and truancy have fallen by 80 percent. Incarcerations of youth have plunged from 22,000 to 5,000 over the last two decades.
The result? Hundreds of thousands’ more diverse teenagers are on California streets today, less policed than ever. Instead of bringing disaster as experts once forecast, youth behaviors improved dramatically.
On the other hand, sporadic crackdowns on teenagers have proven useless or backfired. The 1998 “teen driving” law implementing severe restrictions on new under-18 drivers reversed the previous decade’s large declines in teen traffic deaths and was followed by worse young-driver fatality trends. Comprehensive studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Journal of Safety Research and by the California Department of Transportation all found the law probably cost lives.
The hasty 2016 law to raise California’s “smoking age” from 18 to 21 is also baffling, since teen smoking had fallen by 50 percent during the 2000s on its own. Its most likely effect will be to jeopardize employment by teens in venues where tobacco is sold.
The state drinking and marijuana age laws also need reexamining. In particular, states that had specialty bars and sections serving low-alcohol beer and light wine for 18-20-year-olds actually had better safety records than states with absolute 21 drinking ages like California. The healthy response of California teenagers (much better than adults) to decriminalization of marijuana for all ages in 2011 likewise indicates today’s youth do not fit the 1970s stereotype of drunken, wasted kids.
Further, after the massive drop in arrests, violent crime, gun deaths, and imprisonments among Californians under age 25 that forced closure of eight of the 11 juvenile prisons, why are lawmakers and officials considering spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build new state facilities to imprison young adults? That money would much better be used to lower tuitions for colleges and universities.
Lifting arbitrary, ineffective, and harmful laws (which other Western nations rarely employ) criminalizing youthful participation in adult society is appropriate to this new age in which teenagers are acting better than grownups. Recurring panics over video games, smartphones, and other made-up teenage dangers need to yield to efforts to improve education and reduce poverty.
Today’s more education-oriented, activist youth deserve to contribute to political decisions and leadership. Extending the voting and office-holding age to 16 has worked well in Scotland, Austria, and American towns where implemented. It is not a radical step (ages 16-17 would comprise just 4 percent of voting-age adults), but it would have major benefits for high school civic engagement.
By their behavior changes and survey evidence, young people are better adapted to today’s rapidly changing world than their elders. They seem to be stepping up just as older generations’ behaviors and politics have deteriorated alarmingly. As California increasingly charts its own course in a nation adrift, young people have a lot to offer in dynamic new leadership.
Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, San Francisco. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.