Twenty years ago, Los Angeles was a pretty dangerous place to grow up. In many neighborhoods, kids were joining gangs, dying in drive-by and street shootings, and getting locked up. Seemingly everyone thought an even bloodier teen apocalypse was imminent.
Headlines in this newspaper predicted that "scary," "violent," "killer" kids would take over the streets, bringing "a new wave of mayhem." Magazines, documentaries and anxious policy forums reinforced the idea that local youths were increasingly out of control. In media and expert commentary, the subtext was coded but unmistakably racial. "Deadly demographics" — in scholarly terms, "the disproportionate growth in the number of black teens and young adults" who perpetrate "higher rates of violence" — translated into sensational fears of "superpredators" and "teenage wolf packs" of ever-wilder black and Latino gangsters spreading violence and "moral poverty" from ghettos and barrios to white suburbs.
The strange thing is, the apocalypse never materialized. Among the most lethal places to grow up in the past, Los Angeles is now among the safest. All those pundits and policy wonks were not just wrong — they were spectacularly wrong.
Over the last quarter-century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun fatality rates fell by an astonishing 83% among L.A. residents ages 15 to 24, and by 94% among children ages 14 and younger. Although other cities' gun fatality rates declined too, L.A.'s drop-off was uniquely large and sustained, encompassing inner city and suburb alike, suicides, homicides, accidents, both sexes and all races. In 2014, not a single one of the county's 3.5 million inhabitants younger than age 25 died from an accidental shooting.
Guns aren't L.A.'s only success story. Although certain parts of the city are still dangerous, overall rates of violent, felony, and lesser crimes of all types have plunged among young people by 70% to 90% in recent decades — a staggering decline unmatched elsewhere.
In 1980, according to the Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 129,000 Los Angeles teenagers were arrested for criminal offenses; in 2014, just 32,000 were — even as the county's teenage population rose. Drug offenses decreased by 65%, violence arrests by 70%, felonies by 76%, property crimes by 86%, and homicides by nearly 90%. Reported rapes fell from 523 in 1980 to 122 in 2014, even as the policing of rape was expanded to include same-sex, domestic and intoxicated victims. Incarcerations of L.A. youths in state and local facilities fell from 7,000 two decades ago to fewer than 1,500 today.
Experts asserting the inherent crime and risk propensities of the "teenage brain," or (as President Obama once remarked) that crime and drugs are just "stupid things … teenagers" do, might have had a case back in 1980. Then, teenagers made up more than one-fourth of L.A.'s criminal arrests, double the proportion of those over age 40. It's a very different picture today. Teens now make up fewer than 12% of the county's arrests; people over age 40, nearly 30%.
Yet another encouraging development: L.A. teenagers did not join the opiate epidemic plaguing all age groups across the country. In 1970, L.A. teens and young adults died from drug overdoses at six times the national average; in 1990, at twice the average; today, at rates 40% below the national average.
What explains L.A.'s phenomenal decline in youthful deaths and crime? The truth is, we don't know. Neighboring Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties also saw declines in youth crime and related metrics — but they were less dramatic. Local laws and policing affecting young people did not change significantly over this period.
Here's what did change: demographics. In 1980, the county's youth was 56% nonwhite. Today that figure is 83%. Notably, other cities with large influxes of Latino and Asian immigrants, such as New York, Houston and Phoenix, joined L.A. in sharply reduced youthful gun killings.
Perhaps, contrary to racist stereotypes, diverse younger generations are less inclined to crime, drug abuse and gunplay than older, mostly white generations. Or perhaps millennial youths responded to mass incarceration — to seeing their parents and other adults put in jail, often for drug-related crimes — by staying in school and out of trouble. Indeed, more students than ever are graduating from high school and enrolling in higher education. But, again, we don't really know.
Given the emotional rhetoric from the White House and national media about the high incidence of campus rape, school shootings, and heroin deaths, you'd think that researchers would be flocking to L.A. to determine the causes of its astonishingly positive trends. Youths under age 18 now make up just 6% of the city's criminal arrests, 4% of its gun deaths and 2% of its illicit-drug deaths. You can't do much better at "protecting our kids from gun violence" (to cite Obama's State of the Union address), drugs or crime than Los Angeles.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. He is the author of four books on youth issues.