Radley Balko wrote a shocking link-bait headline: 1 in 25 Americans was arrested in 2011! Balko’s statistic was derived by dividing the number of people in the country by the total number of arrests. As Balko’s readers quickly pointed out, this exaggerates the risk because many people get arrested multiple times a year. He half-retracted his claim, though he kept his screaming headline intact.

This was definitely a case where trying to sex up a public policy trend with the wrong data set and inaccurate analysis generated a less shocking result than identifying the right data set and reporting the facts. I obtained those facts from Professors Robert Brame and Shawn Bushway. They examined the cumulative risk of arrests from age 8 to 23 in a sample of 7335 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth participants. Participants reported on whether they had ever been arrested or taken into custody for illegal and delinquent offenses (excluding minor traffic violations). The period of the study was 1997 to 2008.

The focus of the research was on the cumulative risk of arrests, i.e., how likely were participants at different ages to have been arrested at least once at some point in their lives? Because not all participants completed every wave of interviews, the results could only be reported as ranges, but anywhere in those ranges represents a stunning result: By age 18, the cumulative arrest prevalence rate was between 15.9% and 26.8%. By age 23, it had risen to between 25.3% and 41.4%.

It’s a remarkably common experience for American young people to be arrested. Far more common, the study authors note, than it was in the mid-1960s when another study of this sort was conducted. Some of this of course reflects a rise in youth crime, but some of it almost certainly reflects changes in policing, including the widespread use of stop-and-frisk tactics.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.