President Trump has cast California as “out of control” because of proposed legislation that would make the entire state a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, who, he says, “breed crime.” But in reality, as California’s immigrant population has grown, its crime and violence rates have plummeted.
Let’s start with the demographics. In 1980, census figures show, California’s population was 24 million, and two-thirds of it was non-Latino white. Today, the state’s population of 40 million is 40% Latino, 13% Asian and only 38% white. Over the last two decades, California has seen an influx of 3.5 million immigrants, mostly Latino, and an outmigration of some 2 million residents, most of them white. An estimated 2.4 million undocumented immigrants also currently live in the state.
California, then, is approaching the ostensibly nightmarish scenario that Marco Gutierrez of Latinos for Trump cautioned against — “taco trucks on every corner.”
And yet, according to data from the FBI, the California Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control, the state has seen precipitous drops in every major category of crime and violence that can be reliably measured. In Trump terms, you might say that modern California is the opposite of “American carnage.”
The numbers are striking. Since 1980, California’s rate of reported crime overall has fallen by 62%. The state’s criminal arrest rates, too, have fallen considerably, by 55% overall, and by 80% among people younger than 18 — a population, it is worth noting, that is now 72% nonwhite.
More specifically, the rate of violent crime in California has fallen by an impressive 50% in the same period. This includes drops in robberies (65%), homicide (68%), and rapes and assaults (more than 40%). That last figure is even more remarkable when you consider that the legal definitions of both assault and rape were expanded during these years. (The state’s rate of violent crime did rise slightly in 2015 and 2016, but overall is still at a roughly 50-year low.)
Also telling is the state’s reduction of violent deaths, a category that groups homicides with non-criminal fatalities such as accidents and overdoses from illicit drugs. Before the early 1990s, California had one of the country’s highest rates of violent death. It has since fallen by 18%, and did so as the average rate of violent death across the rest of the country rose 16%. Overall, Californians are 30% less likely to die a violent death today than other Americans.
In fact, compared with averages in all other states, California now has 33% fewer gun killings, 10% fewer murders overall, and 30% fewer illicit-drug deaths. When overdoses from illicit drugs rose 160% in the rest of the country, between 1999 and 2015, they rose only 27% in California.
The murder rates in the state’s largest cities — all of which are “sanctuary” jurisdictions and therefore, by Trump’s logic, the most dangerous — have plummeted by 74%, and are now well below those of large cities elsewhere in the country, new FBI figures show. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the murder rates are half that of Topeka, Kan. The murder rate in Oakland, another sanctuary city, is lower than in Tulsa, Okla.
In nearly every respect, California’s statistics contradict the image of America painted by Trump in his inaugural address — a place of rampant violence, drugs and crime, all stoked by liberal immigration policies.
Many of Trump’s executive orders and policy proposals concerning crime and immigration actually threaten to undo much of the progress California has made. In particular, Trump’s executive order regarding sanctuary jurisdictions could make California’s largest cities less safe, given research that shows public safety is enhanced where immigrants can report crimes without fear of deportation.
State leaders should more forcefully assert the facts about California’s astonishing progress on crime and public safety, and move more aggressively to guard it.
Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.