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May 27, 2011

Another account of the crime rate's changing realities: blame the baby boomers

A great topic of debate this week on the blog has been over how to best account for modern decline in crime rates (see posts and comments here and here).  Now, this news article out of California, headlined "People age 40 and up buck tradition, commit more crime while felony juvenile arrests drop," prompts me now to think we can and should blame crime spikes in the 1980s and 1990s and crime declines thereafter to the baby boom generation entering and then leaving the peak crime ages. It also suggests that some baby boomers are bucking the usually tendency for old folks to age out of crime. Here is how this news piece starts and ends:

Researchers studying the effects of California's three-strikes law have found a puzzling trend: older adults are being arrested for felonies in droves, while felony arrests of juveniles are dropping.

The trend can be attributed to an "enormous increase in drug abuse" by an aging population, according to Mike Males of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, during a three-strikes symposium at the University of Southern California earlier this month.  "We now see a dramatic reversal in the aging of the crime population," Males said. "It baffles me."

Males' finding was part of a report he released in April titled "Striking Out: California's 'Three Strikes and You're Out' Law Has Not Reduced Violent Crime."  The report fuels the debate over California's three-strikes law, which passed in 1994 and requires life sentences for third-strike felony convictions....

Males' report [which can be accessed here] recommends that the law be amended to require that the final strike be a violent crime and found that while it was projected to cost taxpayers billions of dollars, had negligible effects on violent crime levels.

At the same time, the age of offenders arrested for felonies has been steadily rising.  The number of people over age 40 going to prison has more than quadrupled over the last three decades, according to the study. In 1980, about 24,200 felony arrests were made of the 40-plus age group, with that number growing to 110,700 in 2009.

Meanwhile, the number of arrests of juveniles -- a demographic that experiences the least strike sentencing -- has been on the decline, from 97,000 to 58,600 in the same period.

The average age of a third-striker is 43 and an older population is increasingly being incarcerated, Males said. The development is a peculiar one, according to researchers. "In criminology, we assume that people slow down and commit fewer crimes," said Barry Krisberg, Research and Policy Director at UC Berkeley's Earl Warren Institute on Law. "We may need to revisit that and look at that again."

Juveniles tend to commit violent crimes at a higher rate than the older population, noted Harvey Sherman, deputy public defender of the L.A. County Public Defender's Office. With the nation's overall rate of violent crime at a 50-year low, fewer juveniles are going to jail, Sherman said.  At the same time, he expects to see the aging felons trend continue.

"They came back from Vietnam after being shot and they used morphine and heroin," Sherman said.  "Part of the addiction and the length of the addiction that some of these people have on these really nasty drugs means we're going to have some older people who just can't get off the dope."  The aging inmate population combined with the three-strikes law is foreboding for a cash-strapped state.

Of course, the age of those subject to California's three-strikes law will be older because it takes some time to get the first two strikes and get released to commit yet another strike.  In addition, there is reason to suspect and hope that the decline in juve crime is itself a product of the tough three-strikes law because perhaps more folks are fearful of even getting a first strike.  And the notion that these trends are all a product of a generation's time in Vietnam is really a bit silly (as is my basic suggestion that we can and should just blame the baby boomers for crime).

There is, however, a broader point that merits emphasis in this context: the nature, age and behaviors of criminals and would-be criminals is always evolving.  As I have said before and will say again, because human experience and behavior is always so dynamic, any single or simple assessment of the realities of crime and punishment is likely to be incomplete and may perhaps distort our ability to continue to more sentencing law and policy forward efficiently and effectively.

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May 27, 2011 at 09:42 AM | Permalink


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History's Most Annoying Generation.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 27, 2011 9:47:12 PM

SC --

...and the most idulged and self-absorbed. From the criminal justice system to (and especially) entitlement outlays, we have spent not only the money given to us by our parents; we have also borrowed (and spent) the money we should have been saving to hand on to the next generation.

Because we now have no choice, we are going to be spending less on prisons -- and on prisoners, rehab, vocational training, policing and other worthwhile things. Medicare is going to be scaled back. Social Security won't be far behind. We can either start now, in which case the pain will be bad, or later, in which case it will be worse.

The insane idea that you can borrow your way to prosperity is about to get its comeupance. And the Baby Boomers are to blame.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 28, 2011 11:44:33 AM

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