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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Education Called Last Hope|for Crime-Riddled Kern County

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — Kern County, whose police forces kill more people per capita than any other forces in the county, has gained another medal of dishonor: It has higher crime rates than Los Angeles County for all violent and property crimes. Experts say education is the only answer.

The latest edition of the FBI's "Crime in the United States Report" revealed that Kern County reported the highest number of arsons in California with 300, the second-highest number of rapes with 157, and the third-highest number of murders and non-negligent manslaughter, with 31 incidences reported in 2015.

Los Angeles County reported 215 arsons, 304 rapes, and 98 murders that year.

The annual report is a compilation of crime statistics reported by law enforcement agencies across the nation. Its accuracy has been criticized, as it depends upon self-reporting by police and sheriff's departments.

Though Los Angeles County's absolute numbers are higher than Kern's, Kern County's numbers are far higher in per capita crimes in every category.

Remarkably, both counties had lower rates of violent crime and murder than the statewide rates of 426.30 per 100,000 and 4.8 per 100,000, respectively.

The data indicate that violent and property crimes are highest in metropolitan areas and lowest in cities outside major metropolitan areas and in rural counties.

What's up with Kern County?

What makes this paradoxically rural-but-metropolitan county whose primary industries are agriculture and oil production such a dangerous place?

With its seat in Bakersfield, Kern is at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, California's breadbasket. Nearly as big as New Hampshire, Kern County stretches from the Sierra Nevadas east into the Mojave Desert, west to the Coastal Ranges, and south to the Tehachapi Mountains. Though varied in topography, Kern's climate is overwhelmingly desert, with long, harsh summers with triple digit temperatures and short, mild winters. Its population of 882,176 is more than half Latino, 35.4 percent non-Latino white, and 6.3 percent black.

The top oil-producing county in the state and among the top five oil-producing counties in the country, Kern is also a hub of solar and wind energy. It hosts Edwards Air Force Base and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, and the aerospace industry, including the Mojave Spaceport, base of the first supersonic flight, and the first landing of the space shuttle, near Buttonwillow.

Kern also has several badges of dishonor, including the least educated population of 100 metropolitan areas in the nation, the second-worst air pollution in the country, and the nation's deadliest police force per capita.

And if the FBI report is anything to go by, it is one of the most dangerous places to live in California.

What Causes Crimes?

Criminology as a formal discipline began in the 1760s with classical theory, now known as choice theory. Developed by Italian lawyer and philosopher Cesare Beccaria, a founding father of early criminology, classical theory postulates that people make a rational decision to commit crime based on cost-benefit analysis of their actions.


In contrast, the positivist school, championed by theorists Cesare Lombroso and Sigmund Freud, argues that criminal behavior is contingent upon biological and psychological determinants, which may include neurological problems, blood chemistry disorders, personality disorders and mental illness.

Sociological analyses posit that criminal behavior is a product of wide-ranging social and economic forces.

Leonard A. Sipes, a former crime prevention specialist with the Department of Justice's clearinghouse and retired federal criminal justice public affairs director, identified several of the strongest factors that influence an area's crime rate, including poverty and unemployment, substance abuse, gang activity, child abuse, and youth crime.

Kern County has high rates in all of these categories.

In 2014, 24.5 percent of Kern County residents lived at or below the federal poverty line. Median household income from 2010-2014 was $48,000, while per capita income for 2014 was $20,267.

Los Angeles's poverty rate during the same period was 18.7 percent, with a median income of $55,870 and per capita income of $27,987, compared with statewide rates of 13.5 percent, $53,482 and $28,555.

(California's estimated median household income in 2013 was $60,190, and its per capita income that year $22,343, according to city-data.com. That put Kern County's median household income that year 20 percent below the statewide median over the four years, and its per capita income 9.3 below the state's.)

Poverty and crime go hand in hand, according to nationaldialoguenetwork.org, a "voluntary working group of practitioners, educators, and researchers in the fields of public engagement, governance, creative leadership, civic renewal, dialogue, deliberation, and participatory decision-making in public issues."

Crime drives away business and discourages new businesses, exacerbating unemployment, in a vicious cycle of economic decline, unemployment, poverty, instability, and more crime, according to nationaldialoguenetwork.

Poverty is also linked with substance abuse, which also drives a region's crime rate. Unsurprisingly, Kern County has a huge drug problem, particularly with amphetamines, opioids and alcohol. In 2012, 45 people died from opioid overdoses in Kern County: a rate of 3.5 per 10,000 residents. That was more than twice Los Angeles's 1.7 per 10,000 death rate for opioids that year, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Drug abuse rates in both counties are growing, though Kern far outpaces Los Angeles County, with a rate of 906.60 per 10,000 versus 500.70 per 10,000 in 2014. Its drug-related fatalities are also higher, at 21.4 per 10,000 versus Los Angeles County at 15.5 per 10,000.

Kern also reported twice as many non-fatal emergency room visits for amphetamines and alcohol from 2010-2014. Opioid related ER visits were four times higher than Los Angeles, and ER visits for hallucinogens 666 percent higher than Los Angeles.

Meth is a tremendous problem in Kern County. According to a May 2014 report from a local meth prevention group, half of all felonies in Kern County were for meth-related offenses, up from 37.7 percent in 2008.

More than three-quarters of the cases filed by the district attorney's office that year included meth-related charges, up from 46.4 percent in 2008, and 42.6 of substance abuse treatment admissions were for meth, according to Kern Stop Meth Now.

Where there are drugs there may be gangs, and Kern has more than its fair share of them. Though the number of gang members in Kern is unknown, the Kern County Sheriff's Office estimates there are more than 200 active gangs in the area. And though the streets of Los Angeles County typically come to mind when thinking about gangs, its gang risk index is only 5.5, compared with 23.1 in Kern, according to the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

There are more than 850,000 gang members in the United States, and most join between the ages of 11 and 15, according to several estimates, including one from kidsdata.org.

Gang members commit the most violent crimes of any youth demographic and are more likely than their peers to take illegal drugs, drop out of school, and have no job or unstable employment. From 2011-2013, 9.4 percent of seventh-, ninth- and 11th graders in Kern County reported being in a gang, compared to 6.3 percent of students in Los Angeles County, according to kidsdata.org.

Students who reported low connectedness to school were four times more likely to join a gang than those with high connectedness, according to kidsdata. Disconnected youths are more likely to drop out of school and suffer poverty than their more-connected peers, increasing their chances of committing crimes and being jailed.

Though dropout rates for both Kern and Los Angeles counties have declined since 2010, Kern's is still higher, at 14.4 percent versus 12.6 percent.

Children who are bullied at school or abused at home are more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems that increase their risk of criminal involvement. Kern's rates of juvenile arrest and child abuse are higher than in Los Angeles County and California as a whole, with 7.6 arrests per capita versus 6.7 in Los Angeles and 6.8 statewide, and a 14.2 percent rate of substantiated child abuse cases versus 11.2 percent in Los Angeles and 8.7 statewide.

Living in unsafe neighborhoods, suffering social isolation, domestic violence at home and living in poverty are all risk factors that increase the risk of child abuse and, by extension, the likelihood of crime.

Is There a Solution?

Given this bleak portrait, what can Kern County do to improve itself?

Data indicate that students who stay in school are less likely to commit crimes. According to a 2013 report from the California Attorney General, a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rates would decrease murder and assault rates by 20 percent.

Studies indicate that reducing poverty and increasing opportunities for the lower class help reduce crime. James DeFronzo's 1996 study "Welfare and Poverty" demonstrated that offering indigent people supplemental income through public assistance or welfare programs causes crime rates to decrease.

Another approach, known as the Weed and Seed program, is based on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson's War on Poverty programs. Sponsored by the Department of Justice, the program seeks to "weed out" violent criminals and drug abusers from communities and "seed" vital human services, such as neighborhood restoration, crime prevention and treatment and community-based policing.

The Bakersfield FBI field office did not return messages seeking comment.

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