Tuesday, December 20, 2011

One in three teens and young adults arrested?

Usually, I can trust the New York Times to report accurately and scientifically about stories and research they pick up in the media.  I have not been alone in the past few days in feeling shocked by the article, "Many in US are Arrested by Age 23, Study Finds".   They were quoting from a new study reported in the well respected journal Pediatrics  that looked at a national sample of adolescents and found that over 30 percent of "23 year-olds had been arrsted for an offense othern than a minor traffic violation."

Upon closer reading of the actual article in Pediatrics we discover that what the study looked at was  the "cumulative proportion of youth who self-report having been arrested or taken into custody for illegal or delinquent offenses (excluding arrests for minor traffic violations) from ages 8 to 23 years." 

According to WatchingtheGov.com "the study captured arrests for all offenses other than traffic violations, including underage drinking, shoplifting, truancy, robbery, assault and murder. Most teens who are arrested are cited for minor infractions and don’t end up imprisoned."

Lots and lots of kids are in and out of the legal system for offenses related to alcohol and marijuana. Is this the reason for what appear to be high numbers? The data did not separate out information by race or socioeconomic factors. How would it look if we could see it that way?  We know that young black men have a much higher chance of being arrested on similar charges than white teens and young adults. 

Commentary from the liberal  blogoshpere tends to blame the police, the criminal justice system, drug laws, and anti-adolescent bias in our culture. Look at this comment:
"The long term hang up of hair trigger arrests and kangaroo prosecutions is the (sic)we are creating a population of certified losers unable to ever recover. In other words, the cradle-to-prison pipeline is becoming more voluminous. People mired in this apparatus cannot get credit, cannot get employed, cannot get housing, cannot be admitted to practice a profession and are likely encouraged to continue in a life of crime to feed themselves."

For parents and pediatricians there are a number of important ways to think about this data. According to Robert Brame, the lead author of the study and a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina,  "teens who wind up in trouble with the law tend to have early risk factors, such as having a troubled family, childhood behavior problems or difficulty in school."   Many of them are also mentally ill or have treatable problems like attention deficit disorder, anxiety and substance use.  It's the responsibility of the caregiver and the school to identify these students early on.

But we also know from nationally validated data that a lot of otherwise high functioning kids who star on our athletic teams and go to good colleges end up on the wrong side of the law whether they are caught or have such an encounter on their permanent record.  Sometimes it's an issue of  Halloween pranks, reckless driving, loud parties, and other "forgivable" things "teens just do," but it often is behavior that the law is managing because parents are not.  Communities, clergy, schools, parents and teens can work together to define the extent of kids' risky behavior and respond accordingly.  Responses can include programs for those who drink too much, community service for arrests, and other constructive ways of meting out justice.

No teen should be scarred for life, unable to get ahead and without a chance at restitution for behaviors that are commonplace. Nor should communities begin to accept that a criminal record is a right of passage as normal as a bar mitzvah, confirmation or a prom.  But I, for one, might be proud of my kid if he or she were arrested at an Occupy demonstration these days. 

image from bagnewsnotes.com via Googleimages

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