Up until now, the most shocking statistic about the American criminal justice system was this: we house 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
Here's a stat that's even more troublesome: By age 23, nearly 50 percent of America's black males, 44 percent of Hispanic males, and 38 percent of white males have been arrested.
These numbers come from a new study (paywalled) in the journal Crime & Delinquency. In it, University of South Carolina criminologist Robert Brame and his team examine self-reported arrest histories collected through the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. The survey started in 1997, when the 9,000 participants were between the ages of 12 and 16. The participants have been interviewed annually every year since. Brame's study uses data from 1997-2008.
Thanks to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, we've known the rate at which whites and blacks are arrested, but Brame's study is the first to look at cumulative arrests for blacks and whites, and to break that data down by gender. The former number measures how many more times a black person is arrested than a white person; Brame's research tells us the number of black people arrested versus the number of white people arrested.
Here's the summarizing chart:
These stark numbers put America's tendency to over-criminalize, well, everything. Today, police can place you in handcuffs for using a camera on public property, or littering. The slow expansion of activities deemed to be criminal began in the late 1980s, and today it manifests itself in harsh penalties for nonviolent, victimless behavior, the school-to-prison pipeline, and our engorged prison system.
While Brame's study doesn't attempt to explain the roots of the racial disparity, the ACLU recently revealed the extent to which blacks are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession:
While arrests don't always lead to convictions, Brame argues that the number still matters, a lot. He writes:
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 but these problems are likely to reverberate long down the life course in terms of additional arrests, job instability, lower wages, longer bouts with unemployment, more relationship troubles, and long-term health problems including premature death.
Top image: A Los Angeles man being arrested. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson