Why are so many young Americans — about 1 in 3 — getting arrested?

This might seem to some a bit off-message for Humanosphere. But I would argue this is actually a global issue in that our country has a bit of an image problem overseas when it comes to crime.

I was just in Rwanda, where people get arrested for saying bad things about the government. When I raised this issue with Rwandans, they just point back at me and ask what’s up with America?

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Rate, not number. We have the highest proportion of our population in prison. The total number in prison in the U.S. today is about 1.6 million. And if you look at the entire picture, one of 32 Americans is in prison, on parole or under some kind of correctional system supervision.

Here’s another that story won’t help our image: Significant Number of Young Americans Get Arrested.

The headline is actually a bit understated, given the numbers. But the story by ABC’s Carrie Gann punches you right in the face with its first sentence:

By age 23, up to 41 percent of American adolescents and young adults have been arrested at least once for something other than a minor traffic violation, according to a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Why are so many young people getting arrested?

The study cited by ABC, a medical investigation done by pediatricians, quotes the authors surmising that this may be caused by a “host of potential health and behavioral problems” which they say increases the risk a young person will engage in crime.

Perhaps. Or maybe it has something to do with how we, as a society, respond to these “health and behavioral problems.” Many contend we are ignoring the social and economic problems that spawn youth crime. Are we asking the police to mop up for our failures to create an equitable, healthy and promising environment for young people?

Or maybe the statistics reflect law enforcement’s “profiling” response to the increasing number of minorities in our midst. As Nicholas Peart wrote recently in the New York Times Why is the NYPD after me?, simply being a person of color appears to increase your risk of arrest:

When I was young I thought cops were cool. They had a respectable and honorable job to keep people safe and fight crime. Now, I think their tactics are unfair and they abuse their authority. The police should consider the consequences of a generation of young people who want nothing to do with them — distrust, alienation and more crime.

The U.S. Department of Justice reported last week that the American prison population has started to decline slightly, for the first time in 40 years. Maybe that’s good news. I guess it depends upon how you look at it. The DOJ report notes that the decline is mostly in state prisons while federal prisons saw an increase.

Side note: The number of journalists getting arrested worldwide has skyrocketed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In this category at least, the U.S. doesn’t look so bad. Iran and China are among the worst.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.