Overcriminalization

Why Are More Americans Than Ever Getting Busted?

Arrests for petty crimes, like underage drinking, protect nobody and do long-term damage to people’s lives.

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With the crime rate continuing its decades-long slide, why are arrests way up? The answer matters, because arrest records—and subsequent convictions—tend to cast a shadow, limiting people's options and reducing their income for the rest of their lives. That is, if they still have lives; interactions with the police can be dangerous and even lethal, which is another reason to worry about the growing frequency with which cops slap on the cuffs.

You and your kids are a lot more likely to get busted than your grandparents ever were.

"Americans are experiencing higher rates of arrests and convictions by age 26 than did members of the generations before them," according to a recent RAND Corporation research brief that draws from a full study published in Crime & Delinquency. "Americans ages 26–35 were 3.6 times more likely to have been arrested by 26 when compared with those who were age 66 and older."

As a result, about 6.4 percent of Americans born before 1949 have been arrested, compared to about 23 percent of those born between 1979 and 1988.

That might be acceptable if we were talking about dangerous criminals whose arrests contributed to the decline of the violent crime rate by another 3.3 percent from 2017 to 2018 (and of the property crime rate by even more), according to the latest FBI figures. That welcome decline is in addition to the reduction of violent crime by roughly half since 1993. And some of those sorts of criminals are in the mix.

"Assaults, robberies, and thefts combined accounted for 19 percent of all arrests for men and 28 percent for women," RAND's James P. Smith, an economist, writes.

But many of the arrests are for activities that just aren't that big a deal—and some that shouldn't be punishable by law at all. "Other misdemeanors" represent 31 percent of arrests for women and 28 percent for men.

Drug arrests have grown increasingly common, now representing 9 percent of arrests for men and 8 percent for women. Astonishingly, 11 percent of arrests of women and 16 percent of those of men are for underage drinking.

Yes, between a fifth and a quarter of arrests are for getting a buzz on without permission.

Given the petty nature of so many of the arrests, it's difficult to give them credit for the reduction of crime in Americans' lives. So, what's going on?

"Increased enforcement is likely a critical driver of this trend," notes Smith, reinforcing perceptions that police have become more aggressive in their interactions with the public in recent years. On a grimly egalitarian note, he adds that "the evidence suggests that the growing criminalization of American youth is increasingly affecting all races and genders."

That is, the data continues to find that black men suffer most dramatically from the "criminal justice" system—about a third of them have been arrested. But the arrest rate for white men has almost tripled over the years, so that "the probability of being arrested was converging over time between the races."

That convergence is true of women, too, who have seen arrest rates go from one in 100 to one in seven.

So if you want to see growing equality between the races and the sexes, you might want to work your way through a stack of mug shots. Not that this is the way to achieve equality before the law—unless your ultimate goal is misery and poverty.

That's because getting arrested has a long-term effect of people's lives. It reduces the likelihood of marriage and devastates educational and career opportunities.

"Those arrested at least once by age 26 had about $5,000 less in earnings per year as adults, and this difference was about $8,000 higher if there were multiple arrests by that age," Smith points out. Over a working lifetime, that adds up to a penalty of $180,000—$275,000 for those with multiple arrests.

The situation is worse, as you might expect, for those not merely arrested, but also convicted of a crime. Criminal records reduce people's employment options for several reasons, according to the National Reentry Resource Center. Time spent incarcerated minimizes work experience and the skills acquired through it. Employers also tend to prefer hiring people with clean records. And with occupational licensing requirements now covering roughly a quarter of all jobs, many potential employment opportunities are simply off-limits to those with criminal records.

And the likelihood of conviction is going up along with the arrest rate.

"In the 66-plus age group, the probability of conviction after arrest by 26 was about one in four, but for those ages 26–35, it is approaching an even bet," writes Smith. Over the decades, the American criminal justice system has seemingly become more ravenous for human lives.

That conviction rate contributes to the sky-high incarceration rate that has put a mind-boggling proportion of Americans behind bars, with devastating impacts on people's lives. But the incarceration rate is actually down a hair in recent years, though no country that isn't actually a prison with a flag can compete with what the U.S. has done to itself. So, as we consider alternatives to prison for offenders, we need to remember that the act of arresting people is perilous in and of itself.

Speaking of perils, arrest can not only cast a shadow over people's lives—it can end them. Arresting people is dangerous. According to The Washington Post, 678 Americans have been killed by police so far this year. A total of 992 people were killed by police in 2018—up just a bit from 2017.

As the death of Eric Garner in a confrontation with police rooted in the selling of loose cigarettes in violation of tax rules demonstrated, interactions with cops over even trivial matters can have lethal outcomes. A rising arrest rate for petty offenses is disturbing not just for potential long-term dangers, but for immediate ones, too.

Unless somebody can demonstrate that the immediate risks and long-term damage are worth it, we need to get police out of the habit of slapping handcuffs on people without good reason.

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  1. “Increased enforcement is likely a critical driver of this trend,” notes Smith, reinforcing perceptions that police have become more aggressive in their interactions with the public in recent years.

    That’s just dumb. The reason is almost certainly that cop’s gotta cop. When the felony crime rate goes down, does the number of hired cops go down? Abso-fuckin’-lutely not. Should it? yes…good luck with that.

  2. I imagine it has a lot do with revenue. Many of these folks that are arrested (for whatever bullshit reason), probably take a plea deal and pay a fine. This money will obviously be better spent by our benevolent leaders than it would be by the citizens.

    And once you arrest someone, you can steal their shit via civil asset forfeiture. Then the police department and DA’s office can buy a bunch of shit they don’t need with money that isn’t theirs.

    It’s almost like there perverse incentives in place that encourage bad behavior by police and government officials.

    1. And once you arrest someone, you can steal their shit via civil asset forfeiture.

      They can do that without an arrest.

    2. BINGO!!! In some areas now, they charge people for their jail time like they rented a hotel room…So, you get out jail & have a bill to pay and the Govt. knows there are some families who can afford to pay the bill & will do so!….The whole thing is a repulsive scam!

  3. I only have sympathy for old people I need of medical and financial assistance.

    Young people need to learn to code.

  4. How can you say crime is going down when arrests are going up? Only criminals get arrested.

    1. Yes, the Fox Butterfield Effect is well known enough that you’d think it would be de rigeur to throw out some sort of explanation for why a higher arrest rate (and higher conviction rate, as stated later in the piece) aren’t in fact the explanation for the lower crime rate. One argument might be that other countries with lower incarceration rates don’t worry about petty crime, or nonviolent drug users, like we do. But to just say “crime is down, why are more people in jail?” is fairly laughable–of course it’s down _because_ the criminals are in jail!

    2. The crime rate is based on crimes reported, not arrests made. Victimless crimes go largely unreported. Thus, Tuccille’s hypothesis holds. There is no contradiction.

    3. You seem to have missed the point of the article. They are targeting people for misdemeanor crimes which affect no one.
      Open container laws, having an insignificant of amount of drugs on your person, etc..
      This affects not only the future prospects of people but almost guarantees that people will have more contacts with the police in the future as well.

  5. “Arrests for petty crimes, like underage drinking, protect nobody and do long-term damage to people’s lives.”

    “With the crime rate continuing its decades-long slide, why are arrests way up? ”

    Has @Reason filtered out only non-violent crimes for one ?

  6. I’m all for a lighter touch by law enforcement, especially through ending the drug war, but some of the interpretations in this piece are far from obvious. Are people poor because they were arrested and that makes it hard for them to get a good job? Or is the demographic of people who have trouble holding down a job and therefore lower lifetime income prospects also more likely to commit arrestable offenses? Likewise, blaming worse marriage prospects on an arrest record is an interesting argument, given the evidence out there that even high-earning women (and there are more and more of them these days) want to marry men who earn more than they do. That would seem like a pretty good explanation for lower-class men having a hard time in the marriage market. Or again, it could be that men whose heads are a bag of cats are unattractive both as employees and as potential mates, and tend to have habitual run-ins with the police.

    1. “”especially through ending the drug war,”‘

      Can’t even end that correctly. CA legalizes pot. Taxes the crap out of it so the black market still thrives. Now they threaten to crack down on the black market. The end result is people still getting arrested for selling pot. And you know authority is going to ask you where you bought when they see you with it.

  7. Follow the money.

  8. “Why are more Americans than ever getting busted”?

    Parallel construction?

  9. what is “the crime rate”? arrests are arrests, a rate is formulaic and imagined.

    1. The crime rate is based on crimes reported, not arrests made.

  10. “Protect nobody”, really? What are union cop jobs, pickled pork chops?

  11. What with actual crime going down, police forces have to resort to penny-ante arrests to keep their stats looking good. Besides, it’s a lot safer to arrest come college freshman for underage drinking than it is to go after a shooter in the ‘hood.

    1. I’d like to think this to be a cynical comment, but I’ve just lived through a BS prosecution brought on by a Catholic University’s new armed police force. 18 year old client got drunk, was observed throwing up and the school police decided she had to go to the hospital. The student was stupid drunk, but did not want to go in the ambulance. Refused. Student was then arrested for “resisting arrest”, brought to the police station for 2 hours for processing (what happened to the medical emergency?) Student was issued an underage citation and then arrested and charged with a misdemeanor resisting arrest. Never touched the cop, but held on to the ambulance doors to avoid going inside. Thats the extent of the crime.

      It took $5,000 in lawyers fees, $1,500 in court costs and fines, a $200 addiction class run by the county, and 96 hours of highway trash community service performed side by side with drug dealers, wife beaters, addicts and child molesters. The school did their own imposition of hearings, probationary essay writing and more community service.

      We Scarlet Letter people, drain their accounts, and over-react to the slightest anti social transgretion. I can’t help believe beyond the power trip of putting people in the system, this is also just about money.

      1. this is also just about money.

        And among those with their hands out are defense attorneys.

  12. “Why Are More Americans Than Ever Getting Busted?”

    A stupid question.
    You can’t have a police state if the police aren’t doing their jobs by arresting people.
    If they cops aren’t arresting people, then the American people wouldn’t be afraid or suspicious of them.
    Then where would we be?

  13. This might be surprising if everything I did on summer day in my home town was not illegal now. And this is not an exaggeration. Going out on a boat without an adult – illegal. Jump off the cliffs at the park – illegal. Going on a bike ride without a helmet – illegal. Having a paper route – illegal. I could go on and on and on…

    just fucking stupid

  14. Astonishingly, 11 percent of arrests of women and 16 percent of those of men are for underage drinking.

    Yes, between a fifth and a quarter of arrests are for getting a buzz on without permission.

    Er, no. Between a tenth (10%) and a fifth (20%). Not between a fifth (20%) and a quarter (25%). But those statistics are still bad enough.

  15. military industrial complex – it’s all about money and control, cradle to desk to cell to grave.

  16. One word: kids these days…

    1. “Kids these days” are scared shitless about getting busted for anything because they know one little screw up can ruin their future. It’s making them timid and boring, unless they have no dreams.

      1. “It’s making them timid and boring…”

        and subservient, just as intended.

  17. That’s because getting arrested has a long-term effect of people’s lives. It reduces the likelihood of marriage and devastates educational and career opportunities.

    “Those arrested at least once by age 26 had about $5,000 less in earnings per year as adults, and this difference was about $8,000 higher if there were multiple arrests by that age,” Smith points out. Over a working lifetime, that adds up to a penalty of $180,000—$275,000 for those with multiple arrests.

    Or the causation could go in the other direction. It sounds completely plausible that people prone to making the bad decisions that lead to arrest are less successful in life.

  18. The reason is that it’s one of the most lucrative racketeering industries in the country. Every prosecution, in every municipal corporation (kangaroo) court, creates a federal reserve bond. That bond is worth a small fortune by itself, then traded on wall street and matures to an even greater value. When the prosecution is done, the judge quietly tucks that bond into his retirement fund for use long after everyone else has forgotten about it. In short, they aren’t judicial courts anymore, they are revenue extortion mills.

    The real question is; How have we gotten to this point, where things are sooo much worse than what started the last revolution and we are still just bending over and taking it. Answer: Mass media & propaganda masters.

  19. Brilliant article. There is another side effect of a police state run by a party that dedicates its platform to force-initiating First Responders™. When a visa holder is nailed for stepping in llama poo or trimming their kid’s hair without a bribe, license, permit and sales tax number, THAT counts to make them a “danger to the community” who can’t qualify for bond once nabbed by ICE agents on their way out of the courthouse. If the misstep is ruled a CIMT (Crime Involving Moral Turpitude), like a hemp brownie, deportation to some mystical dictatorship is assured.

  20. Anymore, walking out the door is a crime of some sort. Big Brother has to flex his muscles every now and then. This type of corruption is what helps to bring down a country. It runs deep and wide and there is no longer the idea that you are innocent until proven guilty…that has been flipped completely upside down and therein lies the heart of the matter.

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