|Uncommon Journalism speaks with the lead author of a recently published study which shines a new, startling light on the demographics of arrests in America. |
Photograph courtesy of the Florida Memory Project
A study published earlier this month in the journal Crime & Delinquency reveals explosive findings about arrest rates in the United States. According to the authors of the report, close to a third of African-American males in the nation experience at least one arrest by age 18 -- compared to 22 percent of Caucasian males -- while 49 percent of black men, compared to 38 percent of white males, are said to experience at least one arrest by age 23.
The study is the first ever to explore progressive cumulative arrest patterns based on a nationally representative youth survey sample. Previous research has suggested that individuals who experience arrest as youths are much likelier to experience other hardships as young adults, including longer bouts of unemployment, educational setbacks and even premature deaths.
Dr. Robert Brame, lead author of the study and professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the report has been in the works for more than four years. Initial findings from the study were published in the journal Pediatrics in early 2012.
In addition to examining racial demographics, the study also examined statistical discrepancies by gender.
“We end up finding that males have about a 40 percent arrest rate by age 23, and females have about a 23 percent arrest rate by age 23,” Brame said. “We did not find any rates differences among the females at all.”
The Hard Numbers
Data for the study was pulled from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), a cross-sectional project that collected information on nearly 7,000 individuals, ages 12-17, in the mid-1990s. Researchers then compiled arrest experience information for NLSY97 participants, homing in on arrest experiences that may have occurred between the ages of 18 and 23.
The authors of the Crime & Delinquency study then broke the arrest rates down by racial group and gender. Per their results, by the age of 18, approximately 155 black male NLSY97 subjects had experienced at least one arrest -- out of a total black male population of a little over 500 -- while 63 out of 535 black female NLSY97 subjects reported one or more arrest experiences. Among Caucasian subjects, about 510 males out of more than 2,300 survey takers reported experiencing at least one arrest at age 18, while 265 female subjects out of more than 2,000 reported arrests at the same age level. About a quarter of Hispanic male subjects reported arrests at the age level, while close to one out of 10 Hispanic female NLSY97 subjects reported at least one arrest experience at 18.
By age 23, however, the number of arrests among virtually every demographic increased. Almost half of the African-American male subjects in the study reported at least one arrest experience at the age level, while roughly four out of 10 Caucasian male subjects reported an arrest by 23. Close to 44 percent of Hispanic males in the NLSY97 reported an arrest at the age cut-off.
Among female subjects, however, the arrest rates between the ages of 18 and 23 remained relatively flat. About 18 percent of black female subjects reported at least one arrest at 23, a rate that rest at 16 percent for Hispanic females and about 20 percent for white females.
Interpreting the Findings
“The fact is, there really isn’t a lot of earlier research to compare it to,“ Brame said. “There was one study that was done in the 1960s [and] that study found arrest rates for the population were slightly lower than what we found.”
As to why Brame’s figures are higher, he cites numerous potential factors. “For example, there are a lot more police officers in school now,“ he said, “and we have a number of crimes that probably wouldn’t have resulted in an arrest in the ‘60s that would result in an arrest today -- a crime like driving while impaired, or domestic violence.”
As a descriptive paper, Brame said researchers were not controlling for potential social influences, such as racial profiling. “So we’re not making any claims about cause and effect, we’re not making any claims about the different types of crime that they’re being arrested for,” he said. “We explicitly do not address racial profiling in this paper, because that would be a much more complicated question to deal with.”
Brame also notes a major caveat to his findings -- a drastic decrease in total crime over the last 20 years.
“One does need to keep in mind that our sample represents people who were teenagers in the mid-1990s,” he said. “If we captured a sample of 12-to-16-year olds today and followed them forward, I wouldn’t at all be shocked to see the arrest rates be a little bit lower.”
FBI Numbers Must Be Interpreted Carefully
The authors note their findings clash with the arrest rate findings presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who in 2011, stated the arrest rate for African-Americans was more than twice as high as the arrest rate for Caucasians.
“That would be like having a 38 percent arrest rate for white males, and an over 80 percent rate for the black males,” Brame said. And there’s no reason why we would expect to see differences that large.”
Since the FBI data does not differentiate between total arrests and arrests per individual, their statistics could be highly misleading, Brame said.
“If you look at the FBI numbers, you can’t tell the difference between these two statistics…so our study documents fractions of the population that get arrested at least one time in their life by age 23,” Brame said. “That’s a very different statistic than what the FBI is counting.”
Furthermore, when comparing black and white arrest rates, Brame said the lack of a statistical upper bound could prove highly problematic.
“If you have a black arrest rate and a white arrest rate based on the number of arrests, there’s no upper bound on the number of arrests that can occur,” he said. “It can be any positive number, so take a big positive number and divide it by a small positive number, and you can get a pretty big ratio.”
Further Research and Public Policy Takeaways
In the future, Brame said he would like to dissect the NLSY data even further, going beyond gender and race and examining things like the types of offenses committed, how many arrests became convictions and ultimately, recidivism rates.
Arrest records, he said, can create obstructions for individuals seeking higher education, trying to find employment and those seeking public housing. “We have a very large number of people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and they have that baggage with them that they bring into adulthood,” he said. “That’s not even to mention the damage that arrests can do to families, relationships and friendships.”
He is critical of the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline, stating that arrests for minor offenses could have grave implications on the lives of young men and women. “I think schools are very much engaged in this issue, and thinking a great deal about the consequences of arresting people for offenses that are commonly committed in schools,” Brame said. He also urges policymakers to think carefully about the treatment of former arrestees, and the repercussions placing “barriers” before them may have for the whole of society.
“A lot of times, we try to separate people who have criminal records from the rest of us, because we think that will make us safer,“ he concluded. “But the paradox of that is we might be making ourselves less safe by doing that.”
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.