Being Arrested Is An Extremely Common Experience for Young Americans

Radley Balko wrote a shocking link-bait headline: 1 in 25 Americans was arrested in 2011! Balko’s statistic was derived by dividing the number of people in the country by the total number of arrests. As Balko’s readers quickly pointed out, this exaggerates the risk because many people get arrested multiple times a year. He half-retracted his claim, though he kept his screaming headline intact.

This was definitely a case where trying to sex up a public policy trend with the wrong data set and inaccurate analysis generated a less shocking result than identifying the right data set and reporting the facts. I obtained those facts from Professors Robert Brame and Shawn Bushway. They examined the cumulative risk of arrests from age 8 to 23 in a sample of 7335 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth participants. Participants reported on whether they had ever been arrested or taken into custody for illegal and delinquent offenses (excluding minor traffic violations). The period of the study was 1997 to 2008.

The focus of the research was on the cumulative risk of arrests, i.e., how likely were participants at different ages to have been arrested at least once at some point in their lives? Because not all participants completed every wave of interviews, the results could only be reported as ranges, but anywhere in those ranges represents a stunning result: By age 18, the cumulative arrest prevalence rate was between 15.9% and 26.8%. By age 23, it had risen to between 25.3% and 41.4%.

It’s a remarkably common experience for American young people to be arrested. Far more common, the study authors note, than it was in the mid-1960s when another study of this sort was conducted. Some of this of course reflects a rise in youth crime, but some of it almost certainly reflects changes in policing, including the widespread use of stop-and-frisk tactics.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

27 thoughts on “Being Arrested Is An Extremely Common Experience for Young Americans”

  1. How does that track with enforcement of DUI laws, which has become much more strict? In my experience, that seems to be the most common serious offense among young folks.

  2. The school to jail pipeline is probably responsible for a good percentage of arrests. Plus status crimes like breaking curfews and skipping school.

  3. Well, so long as employers take a similarly blase view of this trend, who cares? But I doubt that’s true. Lots of people still look at someone with ANY arrest record as some sort of feral lower life form.

    I guess my question is, is all this arresting doing anyone much good?

    Another question is, based on observation…Are police arresting individuals more simply as a way to gain the right to search for drugs, etc and inflate the charges? This probably has some role in this trend, given how so much of policing justifies itself about the supposed need to prosecute the “war on drugs” aggressively. And they know that so many young people offer a juicy target anyway they can get their foot in the door.

    1. Generally, a job applicant does not have to report arrest records, or even misdemeanors.

        1. In California, I have never been asked if I have been arrested. I thought it was more general.

          1. I think California has far more restrictions than most states. They can’t consider convictions older than seven years or anything marijuana-related except under a few specific circumstances, IIRC, which presumably motivates some firms to just not bother asking. Almost every job I’ve ever applied to that had an application rather than a cover letter/resume application process asked at least one criminal history question, and many ask about any convictions or nolo contendres whatsoever (except traffic violations). And I’ve lived in relatively progressive Mid-Atlantic states.

      1. Ah, but trying going to law school or passing a background check to work in any of the myriad agencies bulking up our “security”

  4. This is an interesting fact but the comparison with the ’60s seems problematic to me. Overall the arrest rate today is a little bit lower than it was in the 60s (e.g. 39 per 1,000 population in 2012 compared to 41 per 1,000 in 1962). It bounces around a bit from year to year, and it was very elevated in the 1990s (close to 56 per 1,000).

    Figure 2 in the paper you link to seems to suggest that today’s age-specific cumulative arrest rates are elevated mainly in the early 20s; they’re actually lower today than they were in the 1960s for kids under 18. I wonder if today’s high cumulative arrest rate for youth 18 and over is driven in part by the arrest rates of the ’90s. Depending on how they calculated the age-specific rates (sorry, no time to read the paper right now), the fact that the only 23-year-olds who have been in the database from the get-go started out in the high-arrest 90s might weigh heavily on the results.

  5. One thing is not clear to me. Does a stop-and-frisk incident count as an arrest? Were participants reporting these incidents as arrests? If they lead to arrests, that is one thing; if they were being reported as arrests by participants who know only that the police stopped them and patted them down, that is quite another. The cumulative risk of an arrest would be inflated if the meaning of “arrest” was not clear to the participants in the survey.

    1. There’s some fairly serious legitimate argument about whether stop-and-frisk should be considered an arrest. When someone with a gun and a badge tells you not to move until they’ve searched your clothing for anything interesting, it may not be a traditional arrest (which requires a particularized charge), but it certainly is a detaining by police and carries all the first-line dangers of the more traditional kind. (And stop-and-frisk was in large part invented because it initially did not invoke the constitutional protections of “real arrest”, which had come to prevent police from randomly arresting people they knew were up to no good.)

      1. On reading the article and the actual questions asked, it seems unlikely that a respondent would confuse stop-and-frisk with arrest, because the question includes “or taken into custody.” Which means, fwiw, that one has to add stop-and-frisk rates to this.

        1. It seems to me that the implication of the question is that arrests are not the same thing as being taken into custody - that “or” - although it is not specified what is meant by arrest. This would confuse me, as neither someone in the habit of being arrested nor a lawyer, but it does not seem unreasonable to take it to include being stopped and frisked. per Keith Humphreys’ comment below, I have always thought being arrested did equate to being taken into custody, although not necessarily with being charged.

    2. @Ed Whitney: I put the prompt verbatim in my post. Subjects were asked whether they had ever been arrested or taken into custody for illegal and delinquent offenses (excluding minor traffic violations). This is a nice way of asking because many people equate arrest with being cuffed, taken to the station, fingerprinted and charged, but an arrest doesn’t necessarily lead to any of those things.

      1. Conversely, being taken to the cop shop or just detained in place for a time doesn’t necessarily amount to an arrest. It is all rather complicated, if one is to get pedantic about the term “arrested”.

        1. It is all really quite simple.

          The Supreme Court majority, over the years, has been chipping and chopping away at the traditional (original intent?) meaning of arrest by creating exceptions of what anyone who is not a judge would sure think look and fell like arrest-certainly including the Founders.

          Drugged up hippies, skateboarders, Mexicans and Blacks should not have simple, enforceable Fourth Amendment rights since they would only abuse those rights, drugs and society.

  6. For most people, stop-and-frisk is the same as being “taken into custody.” You’re certainly not free to walk away under those circumstances, even if it’s legally not a formal arrest.

    Part of the problem here is that we as a society have tolerated the devaluation of our rights and liberties to such an extent that the average person cannot make a good faith determination about whether what they are experiencing is a violation or not. The police love that, because under those circumstances, might makes right and they hold all the cards. And our court systems have been so thoroughly corrupted by the plea bargain scam they use to expedite defendants through a system that is clearly overloaded they simply look the other way to avoid as much complicity in this sham of justice as they can.

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