The rise in criminalization of young America

Arrest rates for young Americans have been rising for decades.  Nearly one in four Millennials have arrest records, and, if the trend is continuing, the rate is even higher for members of Generation Z.

Once you have an arrest record, it will hurt you for life, even if you are a law-abiding citizen from then on.

Average annual incomes are $6,000 a year lower for those with records of one arrest and $11,000 a year lower for those with multiple arrests.  Arrest records can bar you from certain jobs where “good moral character” is a requirement.

It’s not clear why arrests are on the increase.  Serious crimes, such as homicide and robbery, are declining.   As economic historian Adam Tooze commented:

But it is implausible to suggest that such a huge surge in criminalization can have been entirely to do with a greater amount of criminal behavior.  And if it were it would beg the question of what was defined as criminal.  A substantial surge in enforcement is clearly a contributing factor.

The surge may reflect the  “broken windows” policy of policing.  The idea is that lax law enforcement of minor offenses leads to disorder that encourages more serious offenses.

When Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York, he openly said that most violent crime is caused by young black men, and the way to prevent crime was for police to harass young black men in line.

But although blacks are arrested more frequently on average than whites, arrest rates are going up for both blacks and whites.  Whatever the reason, it’s not just racism.

The biggest difference in arrest rates is between those who have college educations or. have parents with college educations, and those who don’t.  Of course cause and effect can work both ways.  An arrest record can affect your chances of getting into college.

Tooze concluded:

Mass incarceration is the most dramatic and most spectacularly damaging aspect of the criminalization of American society, but the damage done is far more all-pervasive than even the extraordinary figures for the American prison population would suggest.

According to the FBI, somewhere in excess of 77 million Americans have what the FBI deems to be a “criminal record,” approximately a quarter of the total population.  More Americans are recorded in the FBI’s criminal database than have college degrees.

America’s policing and criminal justice systems are a gigantic apparatus for the destruction of human capital and life chances that damages above all minorities and America’s working class.

What do you think?


Barred from employment: How criminalization blights American lives by Adam Tooze for Chartbook #173.

Younger Americans Much More Likely to Have Been Arrested Than Previous Generations; Increase Is Largest Among Whites and Women by the RAND Corporation.

Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins by Pew Research Center.

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4 Responses to “The rise in criminalization of young America”

  1. Patrick Berting Says:

    Ultimately everyone is responsible for their own actions and need to face the consequences. And yes, society is sick due to complex causes. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.


  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I really think the decline in religion has left us bereft of a moral anchor. Not that everyone is religious, but our notion of right and wrong ultimately derives from religion even if it gets filtered thru secularism along the way.

    Once you’ve lost the notion that stealing is inherently wrong, then making it wrong because one is supposed to feel empathy for the victim or wrong only on the condition you get caught are poor substitutes. When you feel that you’ve been wronged by “society,” empathy for strangers goes out the window, and these days it is VERY easy to convince yourself of this. If enough people steal and get caught, pretty soon even getting caught loses deterrent value.

    I don’t see the decline in religion stopping any time soon. There are forces at work here far greater than any kind of legislation can address. It will be interesting to see how things play out.


  3. Nikolai Vladivostok Says:

    Crime rates can be hard to pin down because reporting rates vary, but the two most consistently reported crimes are murder (because a body is hard to ignore) and vehicle theft (which must be reported for insurance). Thus, these two are a good litmus test to compare overall crime rates over time.
    US murder rates rose in 2016, declined, then spiked and remained high since 2020:
    The murder rate is still not back to being as high as it was in the early 90s.
    As for whether other crimes really fell over the same period, I leave that for the reader to decide.
    I have read that car thefts also increased but don’t have a link to hand.
    All this suggests that arrest rates are likely increasing because crime rates are increasing.
    On the other hand, I think some of the recent spike in murder rates has been caused by police reluctance to vigorously enforce the law in black areas, which ought to push down arrest rates.
    A lot of the increase in perpetrators and victims of murder is among black people. They are also overrepresented in a recent rise in traffic deaths, which may also reflect underpolicing.
    For much more on these issues, see iSteve’s blog on Unz. It’s the only thing remaining there worth reading.
    Having said all that, I don’t understand the American practice of making arrest records public. Many countries only allow interested parties to see convictions, usually with consent (i.e. for a job application), and most offences are removed from the record after a certain number of years has passed. Some minor convictions are not ‘recorded,’ which mean police and courts can see them but potential employers can’t.
    That seems fairer to me. If someone stole a car at age 20 and has kept his nose clean for the decade since, there’s generally no reason to dredge that up.
    I belong to a profession which allows the registering body to see all convictions but that’s a special case.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The rise in criminalization of young America — Phil Ebersole’s Blog | Vermont Folk Troth Says:

    […] The rise in criminalization of young America — Phil Ebersole’s Blog […]


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