Study: Millennials are arrested more often than their predecessors, even when they report committing fewer crimes

Results demonstrate how proactive policing practices and increased targeting of minor infractions has affected an entire generation, researchers say

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Millennials are more likely to be arrested than their predecessors regardless of self-reported criminal activity, finds a new study by a Johns Hopkins University expert. Furthermore, black men who self-reported no offenses were four times more likely to be arrested at the beginning of the 21st century than non-offending blacks of the previous generation, and 31.5 percent more likely to be arrested than whites of the same generation who did not self-report any crimes.

The study, published in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, demonstrates how proactive policing practices and increased targeting of minor infractions affected an entire generation, the researchers say.

"The idea that there's a direct link between committing a crime and having contact with the criminal justice system is essential to public policy, political rhetoric, and criminology, and the assumption is rarely questioned," says Vesla Weaver, the Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University and the study's first author.

"Our study found that there is a loosening relationship between actually committing a crime and being arrested for the millennial generation, something that was not true for the previous generation."
Vesla Weaver
Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of Political Science and Sociology

"However, our study found that there is a loosening relationship between actually committing a crime and being arrested for the millennial generation, something that was not true for the previous generation, Gen X," she adds.

It is important to note, Weaver says, that the analysis is limited and does not capture all possible members of each generation. For the purposes of this research, those who were between 18 and 23 years old in 1980 and in 2002 are defined as Gen Xers and millennials, respectively. The analysis does not capture later-born millennials and Gen Xers.

To Weaver's knowledge, this study is the first of its kind to examine how the relationship between reported criminality and involvement with law enforcement has shifted across generations.

The study relied on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which includes a nationally-representative survey sample of more than 8,000 young adults and asks respondents to self-report crimes committed and experiences with various arms of the criminal justice system, including police, courts, and correctional institutions.

The researchers included 5,837 respondents from the Gen X cohort and 8,683 respondents from the millennial cohort. The two generations were chosen to represent groups that were on either side of a dramatic change in policing marked by more attention to low-level crimes and greater resources being spent on the criminal justice system.

The results show that millennials had much more contact with police even though their Gen X predecessors reported more offenses; only 10 percent of young adults in the Gen X group were arrested even though 52 percent reported committing at least one crime (not including drug use), but 25 percent of millennials were arrested, even though only 15 percent reported committing at least one crime (not including drug use).

Millennials overall were more likely to report being arrested, absent of committing a crime, than the previous generation. For the Gen X group, 18% of those who reported being arrested also reported no offending, whereas 70% of the millennial group reported so.

This disparity is particularly exaggerated by race. In the Gen X cohort, blacks and whites both self-reported committing the same number of crimes and being arrested at similar rates, for all surveyed crimes. In the millennial cohort, however, black men were more likely to be arrested, absent of committing a crime, than white men who actually reported committing a crime. Black men were 419 percent more likely to be arrested without having reported criminal involvement than black men from the previous generation and 31.5 percent more likely to be arrested than whites of the same generation who did not report any offenses.

The impacts of arrest are enduring, as studies have shown that arrest is associated with lower earnings, greater chance of unemployment, lower educational attainment, and a higher likelihood of continued involvement with the criminal justice system. The clearly disproportionate rate of black arrests further perpetuates racial inequity, say the research team.

The results show the ramifications of a policy era characterized by broken windows policing, increased prosecutorial activism, and a sweeping set of legislative changes that together shifted the criminal justice system toward a focus on low-level or non-offenders, says Weaver.

"Our reform strategy should not only focus on decreasing punitive interventions but on realigning exposure to arrest with criminal offending," she adds.