Marijuana Decriminalization Drops Youth Crime Rates by Stunning 20% in One Year

The Center for Public Integrity / By Susan Ferriss

Arresting and putting low-level juvenile offenders into the criminal-justice system pulls many kids deeper into trouble rather than turning them around.

Marijuana — it’s one of the primary reasons why California experienced a stunning 20 percent drop in juvenile arrests in just one year, between 2010 and 2011, according to provocative new research.

The San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) recently released a policy briefing with an analysis of arrest data collected by the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center. The briefing, “California Youth Crime Plunges to All-Time Low,” identifies a new state marijuana decriminalization law that applies to juveniles, not just adults, as the driving force behind the  plummeting arrest totals.

After the new pot law went into effect in January 2011, simple marijuana possession arrests of California juveniles fell from 14,991 in 2010 to 5,831 in 2011, a 61 percent difference, the report by CJCJ senior research fellow Mike Males found.

“Arrests for youths for the largest single drug category, marijuana, fell by 9,000 to a level not seen since before the 1980s implementation of the ‘war on drugs,’ ” Males wrote in the report, released in October.

In November, as Males blogged recently, voters in Washington state and Colorado voted to legalize but regulate marijuana use, like alcohol, for people over 21. California’s 2010 law did not legalize marijuana, but it officially knocked down “simple” possession of less than one ounce to an infraction from a misdemeanor — and it applies to minors, not just people over 21. Police don’t arrest people for infractions; usually, they ticket them. And infractions are punishable not by jail time, but by fines — a $100 fine in California in the case of less than one ounce of pot.

“I think it was pretty courageous not to put an age limit on it,” said Males, a longtime researcher on juvenile justice and a former sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Arresting and putting low-level juvenile offenders into the criminal-justice system pulls many kids deeper into trouble rather than turning them around, Males said, a conclusion many law-enforcement experts share.

California’s 2010 law still makes it a misdemeanor for anyone over 18 to possess less than an ounce of pot on school grounds, Males noted. For an adult, that’s an offense punishable by a $500 fine, ten days in a county jail or both. A minor caught on school grounds with less than an ounce of marijuana is also guilty of a misdemeanor and faces a $150 fine for the first offense, a $500 fine for a second offense and commitment to youth detention for not more than 10 days.

Before the passage of the 2010 law, Californians caught with less than an ounce of pot were arrested by the thousands every year, ultimately facing a fine of $100 fine and, under certain conditions, referral to drug treatment or education. Many of those arrested were booked, others were released but required to appear in court. They could demand a trial. Strained courts had to take up time ordering diversion treatment programs — a waste of court resources, supporters of a reform said.

Backed by the California District Attorneys Association, the new pot law — passed by state lawmakers — did away with prior requirements that pot offenders be referred to treatment and now allows them to pay a $100 fine akin to that for jaywalking. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the law, he noted that simple pot possession in California was already “an infraction in everything but name.”

Males said he suspects that many of the 5,831 marijuana arrests of juveniles in California last year may have occurred on school grounds. He doesn’t have data yet to check his theory, however.

In his police briefing, Males also notes that juvenile arrests in California were the lowest ever recorded since statewide statistics were first compiled in 1954. The decline, Males said, wasn’t due just to fewer marijuana arrests.

Drug-related juvenile arrests overall fell by 47 percent between 2010 and 2011. Violent crime arrests fell by 16 percent; homicide arrests by 26 percent; rape arrests by 10 percent; and property-crime arrests by 16 percent. Nationwide, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, arrests of juveniles for all offenses decreased 11.1 percent in 2011 when compared with the 2010 number; arrests of adults declined 3.6 percent.

This story was originally posted on Alternet.


  1. avatar says


    Close your eyes and cover your ears. The truth must be suppressed for the government to continue wasting money on their worthless drug war.

  2. avatarBrian Monahan says

    I beleive the decriminalization of marijuana is a courageous effort from the government and also very effective. Marijuana has never been shown to be dangerous to the body or others so why should it be illegal? Marijuana has never hurt anybody and it was illegal for a long time but alcohol cause many different problems for people and is very much legal for anyone over twenty one. Pot has proved to be very helpful; proved to reduce pain caused by many illnesses. It also reduces angry emotions in people that use marijuana.
    In california pot has been decriminalized and has shown nothing but good results. It has dropped youth crime rates by twenty percent in a year. Arrests of juveniles has gone from almost fifteen thousand in 2010 to about fifty-eight hundred in 2011. I believe that since the possesion has just been knocked down to an infraction which is only punishable by a fine youths that are ticketed will be less likely to deal with the people that could possibly bring them down and will do less stupid things to hide their marijuana. I believe that the decriminalization of marijuana in states has no negative side effects only good.
    As a youth i believe a lot of the reason people smoke pot as a kid is because it is illegal. As a kid everything that is illegal to us is fun. One may be considered “bad-ass” when you do something illegal and considered “cool”. As you grow up you are taught not to try marijuana and the excessive stress put on it makes kids want to try it. I think that the decriminalization may also lower the amount of pot smoking youth will decrease as time goes on because it wont be stressed so much and it wont be considered “cool” anymore.
    The decriminalization of pot has also decreased crime rates in many different areas. Drug related arressts dropped by 47% because kids are less pressured to try other drugs when they can just smoke pot and not worry about being arrested so they dont think since they already have a possibility of going to jail why not try other drugs. Violent crime arrests have dropped by 16% because marijuana calms people down. Murder arrests have dropped by 26% and rape arrests have dropped by 10% which i believe is cause of marijuana because it makes people worries and problems go away when they are so relaxed. Marijuana has many effects on the the state that have benefitted a lot during the past year.
    I believe marijuana should be decriminalized in all states based on the extraordinary results in california. Who doesnt want less kids getting arrested? I would rather crime rates in all categories to drop dramastically in just a year. ? I would rather kids not experiment with other drugs and get themselves in a lot worse trouble. It only benefits and i dont know why other state governments dont see that.

  3. avatarMalcolm Kyle says

    Thanks to Prohibition, we now have a far higher percentage of our own citizens locked in cages than any other nation on the whole planet. Apart from the fact that these extra prisoners are not contributing economically to society, it also costs 50,000 dollars per annum to incarcerate them. Additionally, their families often go on government assistance, leaving the average tax payer to pick up the bill. Their kids may also be taken into care, or raised by foster parents—again with our money. Now add to all this: the court costs, jail costs, and the salaries of all those people that have to deal with the enforcement of prohibition—like police officers, judges and public defenders—and you’ll start to get a fair idea of why “Black Thursday” (October 24, 1929) happened during the period of another of our great experiments: Alcohol Prohibition (1919-1933)