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.


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.