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The Stunning Facts on Crime and Imprisonment Everyone Is Ignoring

By Mike Males (originally published in The Washington Monthly)

America’s criminal justice establishment — comprised of major foundations, interest groups, and academics — has missed a number of mammoth trends crucial to designing modern reform policies.

One trend that escaped official notice was revealed in a recent Wonkblog post by Stanford University professor Keith Humphreys: over the past 15 years, imprisonments have plummeted among African Americans while rising among non-Hispanic whites. That dramatic, undiscussed trend is part of the revolution in crime and violence sweeping the country.

The racial pattern includes an equally surprising generational pattern in imprisonments, as well as in criminal arrests, gun violence, and other risks. Just 15 years ago, young adults ages 18 – 24 were nearly twice as likely to be imprisoned as their middle-aged parents (age 45 – 54). Today, after tremendous shifts both in numbers and per-capita imprisonment rates shown in the charts, young adults are less likely to be locked up than the middle aged.

These generational trends in imprisonment have occurred among non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike. Large declines in rates of imprisonment of young adults ages 18 to 24 and large increases among ages 45 and older occurred among all races and ethnic groups.

However, a pronounced racial difference occurred at ages 25 to 44, in which whites showed generally small increases and African Americans and Hispanics decreases in rates of imprisonment. It is mainly the different imprisonment trends among these adults that produced the overall 11% increase in white imprisonment levels alongside the declines of 29% and 18%, respectively, in black and Hispanic imprisonment rates over the last 15 years.

The massive declines in imprisonment of teenagers and young adults parallel large declines in juvenile arrests and incarcerations. Fifteen years ago, some 110,000 youths and young adults were incarcerated; today, 57,000. More than 1,100 juvenile detention centers have closed as youthful crime plummeted.

The size of these generational trends is staggering. In 1994, criminal arrests of Americans under age 25 peaked at 6.7 million. Since then, their arrests have plummeted by 3.1 million through 2014 even as the teen and young-adult population increased by nine million. Meanwhile, arrests rose among Americans ages 25 – 39 (up 1.7 million) and 40 and older (up 600,000).

For those offenses most likely to lead to imprisonment — major (Part I) property, violent, and drug crimes — the generational shift intensifies. Since 1994, annual arrests for these offenses among Americans under age 25 fell by nearly 800,000, and also declined among ages 25 – 39 (down 260,000). But annual arrests for these Part I and drug offenses rose by 270,000 among ages 40 and older.

Gun violence death rates show a similar pattern. Older whites in particular show pronounced increases over the last 20 years (up 25%), while all races under 25 show large declines (down nearly 50%). Drug abuse likewise has hit aging white (and to a lesser extent, aging black) Americans hard. Whites ages 40 – 64, one-fourth of the teenage/​adult population, accounted for 43% of Americans’ 47,000 drug abuse fatalities in 2014. Just 8% were under age 25.

The massive racial and generational shifts in arrest, violence, and drug abuse appear closely linked to the shift in imprisonments. California, the only jurisdiction to maintain detailed statistics on crime by race crossed with age, shows even larger generational divisions in crime, imprisonment, and violent death, including a 70% decline in teenage crime rates in recent decades.

These trends may seem particularly surprising since older ages retain distincteconomic advantages (much higher levels of wealth and much lower rates of poverty, on average) than younger ones, particularly for whites. Traditionally, higher economic standing has protected against arrest, violent death, and particularly imprisonment, but this advantage appears to be diminishing.

However, there are recent indications that the quiet epidemic” of drugs, alcohol and suicide” affecting older whites may be related to the post-2008 economic downturn and plunge in real estate markets. These accumulating economic and health troubles may also relate to the increases in arrests and imprisonments of older whites. In California, older whites are the only group to show increased arrests since 2008 as all other populations (including older minorities and younger whites) showed declines. In a particularly stunning reversal, more minority youths (51,400) than middle-aged whites (48,000) were arrested for felonies in 2008; just six years later, more than twice as many middle-aged whites (51,500) were arrested than minority youth (22,400).

Clearly, these trends are of enormous significance in a wide array of social and health policy fields. As such, it is a mystery why these important generation-based trends evident for several years still remain largely undiscussed and unstudied. Where has the crime establishment been? Why haven’t these trends been analyzed and used to inform much-needed system reforms?

Examining the webpages and forums of leading foundations, academic schools andagencies reveals that startling modern trends are being ignored in favor of a retreat into obsolete 19th century notions of the innate, biologically-based criminality of young people and the virtual immunity of older adults to drugs and crime. True criminal justice reform requires moving beyond interest-group promotion and toward recognition that modern trends show age, race, crime, and risk may be very different phenomena than old prejudices have long maintained.

Sources for charts: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners Series. US Census Bureau, Population Estimates