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Study: Nearly 1 in 3 U.S. Youths Will Be Arrested by Age 23

Startling Numbers Are a 'Wake-Up Call' That Can Harm Health of Youth and Community
By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Dec. 19, 2011 -- America’s youth are in trouble -- literally.

Parents and non-parents alike might be shocked to learn a new study estimates that roughly 1 in 3 U.S. youths will be arrested for a non-traffic offense by age 23 -- a “substantively higher” proportion than predicted in the 1960s.

The study, posted online by the journal Pediatrics, shows that between about 25% to 41% of 23-year-olds have been arrested or taken into police custody at least once for a non-traffic offense. If you factor in missing cases, that percentage could lie between about 30% and 41%.

What was learned was that the risk was greatest during late adolescence or emerging adulthood. The study also shows that by age 18, about 16% to 27% have been arrested.

“It’s a wake-up call,” says Robert Sege, MD, PhD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, who was not involved in the study.

“By and large, we pediatricians tend to see our patients as victims,” says Sege, a pediatrics professor at Boston University. But, he notes, the new report suggests pediatricians must also consider that their patients could become victimizers.

They are also setting themselves up for a destructive and toxic start to life, whether from violent and unsafe behavior, to an increased risk for an unhealthy lifestyle.

The researchers base their conclusion on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, ages 8 to 23. Data analyzed in the new study came from national surveys of youth conducted annually from 1997 to 2008.

Their finding contrasts with a 1965 study that predicted 22% of U.S. youths would be arrested for an offense other than a minor traffic violation by age 23.

Why the Rise in Arrests?

The researchers cite some “compelling reasons” for the increase.

“The criminal justice system has clearly become more aggressive in dealing with offenders (particularly those who commit drug offenses and violent crimes) since the 1960s,” the authors, all criminologists, write. In addition, “there is some evidence that the transition from adolescence to adulthood has become a longer process.”

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the proportion of the population that was incarcerated remained remarkably stable at about 100 inmates per 100,000 people, researcher Robert Brame, PhD, of the department of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, tells WebMD. Today, Brame says, that figure has soared to 500 inmates per 100,000 people.

More aggressive treatment of offenders has led to a decline in the crime rate, Brame says: “I think it’s pretty clear that some violent crimes have been prevented by having people locked up in prison.”

But he questions whether the expense of incarceration -- $25,000 to $30,000 per person per year -- is the best use of the money. Perhaps the funds would be better spent on programs that not only could lower the crime rate but carry other benefits as well, such as stopping a person from committing a crime in the first place, Brame says.

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