Nearly one in three people will be arrested by the time they are 23, a study published Monday in Pediatrics found.
"Arrest is a pretty common experience," says Robert Brame, a criminologist at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and principal author of the study.
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.
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein says the increase in arrests for young people in the latest study is unsurprising given several decades of tough crime policies.
"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.
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 high rate of arrest among youth is troubling because the records will follow them as adults and make it harder for them to get student loans, jobs and housing, says Kurlychek, an associate professor at University at Albany-SUNY who studies juvenile delinquency. "Arrests have worse consequences than ever for these juveniles," she says. Arrest records "follow you forever. The average teenager who steals an iPod or is arrested for possession of marijuana — why do we make that define their lives?"