By the time they’re 23 years old, between 30 and 41 percent of Americans have been arrested, according to a study recently released by the journal Pediatrics. This number has sharply increased in recent decades; in the mid-1960s, only 22 percent of Americans reported having been arrested by the time they turned 23.
Even though this data seems shocking, the study’s author, Professor Robert Brame of the University of North Carolina, is “not terribly surprised” by it. Why should he be? Americans incarcerate an enormous proportion of our population – today, nearly one in 32 Americans are under correctional supervision. We impose harsh penalties for non-violent crimes.
The increasingly punitive nature of our society is especially evident among young people. Our schools are routinely staffed by police officers with authority to interrogate, search, and arrest students. Many public schools have adopted “zero tolerance” policies, treating minor infractions as criminal offenses. In one extreme but illustrative example, a 13-year-old New Mexico student was arrested for “interfering with public education” after he “burped audibly” in class.
Juvenile arrest is now common. What’s really shocking is the way contact with the criminal justice system continues to haunt young people long after arrest, conviction, or incarceration. The study in Pediatrics noted that youth with arrest records have lower levels of earnings, longer bouts with unemployment, greater work instability, diminished educational levels, and a greater risk of destructive family conflicts. The study’s authors concluded that “there is a risk that the collateral social and personal damage created by an arrest mortgages the futures of young people as they make the transition to adulthood.”
The ACLU of Washington opposes policies that deny young people opportunities solely on the basis of juvenile records. As the ACLU-WA Equal Justice Works Fellow, I am representing young people trying to seal juvenile records, and am challenging employers’ policies of denying jobs to all juvenile ex-offenders.
There is also some hope on the horizon for all Washington youth. Last session, with ACLU-WA support, the legislature passed a bill making it illegal for consumer reporting agencies to report juvenile records after an individual has turned 21. A legislative task force is still working on implementing the bill. With juvenile arrest rates so high, such changes are vital to limit the damage that juvenile records can cause.
You can get more information about the report on juvenile arrest rates in this article about the study on TIME.com.