Almost half of US black men arrested before age 23, report finds

The report has put a spotlight on high rates of arrests for young people, as well as on the complex interplay of gender and race in arrests.

Matthew Dae Smith/The State Journal/AP
Members of the Michigan State Police Department arrest a man in East Lansing's Cedar Village after the Michigan State football team's Big Ten title win prompted rowdy fans to celebrate with bonfires. According to a new study, nearly half of black men and 40 percent of white men nationally are arrested at least once on non-traffic-related crimes by the time they turn 23.

For a 23-year-old black man in the US, the odds that he has been arrested at least once in his life for a non-traffic-related crime are almost 50-50. If that young man is white, the chances drop to about 38 percent.

These are among the findings of a new report published Jan. 6 in the journal Crime & Delinquency. Its results have put a harsh spotlight on the high rates of arrest for young people – rates, the authors say, that can have major consequences as young Americans navigate job markets, loan requests, and college applications with blotted criminal records.

The paper also highlights the complex role of race and gender in arrests. Young women, who are overall arrested less frequently than young men, showed just slight racial variation in their arrest rates.

The report is based on 1997 to 2008 data from the annual federal Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of about 7,300 young people. The survey includes questions about if the person has been arrested for non-traffic-related allegations, such as truancy, underage drinking, or violent assault.

The report’s authors found that by age 18, some 30 percent of black men and about 26 percent of Hispanic men have been arrested; by age 23, about 49 percent of black men have been arrested, as well as about 44 percent of Hispanic men.

The arrest rate for white men is high but significantly lower than that for Hispanic and black men: Before age 18, some 22 percent of white men have been arrested; by age 23, that number rises to 38 percent.

The racial differences in those findings are consistent with FBI data showing that blacks are arrested at a rate 2.2 times higher than are whites.

For women, the numbers are all lower and suggest less racial disparity: About 20 percent of black women, 18 percent of white women, and 16 percent of Hispanic women have been arrested by age 23.

The authors say that the arrest numbers signal the future problems that young people will encounter as a result of their arrest.

“There is substantial research showing that arrested youth are not only more likely to experience immediate negative consequences, such as contact with the justice system, school failure and dropout, and family difficulties,” the authors write, “but these problems are likely to reverberate long down the life course.”

The long-term consequences of youthful arrests include: “additional arrests, job instability, lower wages, longer bouts with unemployment, more relationship troubles, and long-term health problems, including premature death,” the authors write.

The report comes at a time when concern about racism in arrests is at a high. Earlier this year, high-end retailers Macy’s and Barneys were accused of detaining multiple black customers at New York City locations on suspicion that the shoppers had stolen their expensive purchases. The allegations fueled a nationwide conversation on the role of race in arrests. The New York Police Department has also come under enormous pressure from human rights groups to reform its controversial stop-and-frisk policies, which activists say unfairly target black and Hispanic men. 

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