Study Suggests Nearly 1 in 3 Young People Arrested By the Age of 23


A new study in Pediatrics suggests that something like 30-41% of people are arrested by the age of 23, which to some might seem very shocking initially. But considering that the latest FBI report shows violent crimes and property crimes dropped in every region of the US yet again, it's hard to say what this study really means, particularly since it's self-reported arrests and it does not differentiate between crimes.

According to USA Today:

The new data show a sharp increase from a previous study that stunned the American public when it was published 44 years ago by criminologist Ron Christensen. That study found 22% of youth would be arrested by age 23. The latest study finds 30.2% of young people will be arrested by age 23. 

The original study lists the results as follows:

By age 18, the in-sample cumulative arrest prevalence rate lies between 15.9% and 26.8%; at age 23, it lies between 25.3% and 41.4%. These bounds make no assumptions at all about missing cases. If we assume that the missing cases are at least as likely to have been arrested as the observed cases, the in-sample age-23 prevalence rate must lie between 30.2% and 41.4%. The greatest growth in the cumulative prevalence of arrest occurs during late adolescence and the period of early or emerging adulthood.

USA Today gives further context to the data:

"I was astonished 44 years ago. Most people were," says Blumstein, a professor of operations research at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University who served with Christensen on President Lyndon Johnson's crime task force.

Now, Blumstein says, youth may be arrested for drugs and domestic violence, which were unlikely offenses to attract police attention in the 1960s. "There's a lot more arresting going on now," he says.

The new study is an analysis of data collected between 1997 and 2008 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The annual surveys conducted over 11 years asked children, teens and young adults between the ages of 8 and 23 whether they had ever been arrested by police or taken into custody for illegal or delinquent offenses.

The question excluded only minor traffic offenses, so youth could have included arrests for a wide variety of offenses such as truancy, vandalism, underage drinking, shoplifting, robbery, assault and murder — any encounter with police perceived as an arrest, Brame says. Some of the incidents perceived and reported by the young people as arrests may not have resulted in criminal charges, he says. [Emphasis added]

Localities handled many minor offenses more informally 40 years ago than they do now, criminologist Megan Kurlychek says. "Society is a lot less tolerant of these teenage behaviors," she says.

The difference in media summaries of the study are revealing. USA Today gives the aforementioned details, with the CMU professor explaining some of the reasons for these increased numbers. The rest of the article leans heavily on criminologists who are refreshingly skillful at panic-free elaborating on why the kids are getting in trouble and the takeway is that petty crime and drug charges are poor excuses to ruin a young person's life.

By contrast, ABC News and The San Francisco Chronicle are clearly pursuing the social cost angle of these numbers, which the original study apparently also delved into.

ABC has some worried medical experts:

"Those are alarmingly high numbers," said Dr. Eugene Beresin, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School. "There are social, economic, educational and family risks associated with arrests. And we all have to be worried about that."

Although an arrest doesn't necessarily mean a child, teen or young adult is a criminal, previous research has connected run-ins with the law with other problems -- drug addiction, physical or emotional abuse and poverty, to name a few.

Beresin said a high number of arrests could also indicate a high rate of untreated psychiatric disorders, another factor that has been linked to criminal activity. According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit group, between 50 to 75 percent of incarcerated young people have diagnosable mental health problems.

Beresin later bemoans the country's lack of spending and says ""We're really asleep at the wheel right now when it comes to these problems with our young people."

But to put minds at ease, the FBI, as mentioned above, just released its report on violent and property crime over the first half of 2011 and rates fell in both areas as they have been since 2007. And by comparison and reminder that not all crimes have victims, the rate of arrest per 100,000 people for marijuana possession jumped from 104.9 in 1990 to 246.5 in 2007; for all drug crimes the rate jumped from 435.3 to 585.9 per 100,000 [Excel sheet.] The rate for violent crimes by actual juvenile (10-17 year olds) "reached a historic low in 2009," according to the Department of Justice.

There's just something fundamentally ridiculous about grouping 13-year-olds playing hooky and smoking weed or 21-year-olds murdering and raping into one (self-reported, again) study; if you're trying to draw any conclusions, the United States has a whole lot of laws and yes, being incarcerated at a young age probably does nothing for your mental health.

Reason on crime and criminal justice and on crime rates. Also Radley Balko in the July issue on "The Crime Rate Puzzle."