There are other things going on in people's lives at the time they get arrested, and those things aren't necessarily good.
By age 23, almost a third of Americans have been arrested for a crime, according to a new study that researchers say is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life.
The study, the first since the 1960s to look at the arrest histories of a national sample of adolescents and young adults over time, found that 30.2 percent of the 23-year-olds who participated reported having been arrested for an offense other than a minor traffic violation.
That figure is significantly higher than the 22 percent found in a 1965 study that examined the same issue using different methods. The increase may be a reflection of the justice system becoming more punitive and more aggressive in its reach during the last half-century, the researchers said.
The study did not look at racial or regional differences, but other research has found higher arrest rates for black men and for youths living in poor urban areas.
Criminal justice experts said the 30.2 percent figure was especially notable at a time when employers, aided by the Internet, routinely conduct criminal background checks on job candidates.
"This estimate provides a real sense that the proportion of people who have criminal history records is sizable and perhaps much larger than most people would expect," said Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Albany and a co-author of the study, which appears in Monday's issue of the journal Pediatrics.
The study analyzed data collected as part of the federal government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The 7,335 participants were nationally representative and ranged in age from 12 to 16 when they were enrolled in the survey in 1996. The first interviews were conducted in 1997. Follow-up interviews have been carried out annually since then.
The researchers found that the probability of a first arrest accelerated in late adolescence and early adulthood — at 18, 15.9 percent of the participants reported having been arrested — and then began to flatten out as the youths entered their 20s.
Robert Brame, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the lead author of the study, said he hoped the research would alert physicians to signs that their young patients were at risk.
"We know that arrest occurs in a context," Brame said. "There are other things going on in people's lives at the time they get arrested, and those things aren't necessarily good."