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Arrest rates and racial inequality

27 Jan , 2014  

A new study published in Crime & Delinquency claims that whites have fairly high arrest rates has been given attention by the Associated Press, Reuters, UPI, New York Daily News, Newsday, and Salon. International coverage includes the UK Daily Mail and India Talkies. The problem is that blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested relative to whites than this new study appears to find.

In this study, we examine race, sex, and self-reported arrest histories (excluding arrests for minor traffic violations) from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97; N = 7,335) for the period 1997 through 2008 covering cumulative arrest histories through ages 18 and 23. The analysis produces three key findings: (a) males have higher cumulative prevalence of arrest than females and (b) there are important race differences in the probability of arrest for males but not for females. Assuming that the missing cases are missing at random (MAR), about 30% of Black males have experienced at least one arrest by age 18 (vs. about 22% for White males); by age 23 about 49% of Black males have been arrested (vs. about 38% for White males).

This implies that for juveniles the arrest rate for blacks is 36 percent higher than for whites. The problem is that the Department of Labor’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth is not a representative sample of the population. For sometime it over represented “poor white” individuals, though this over reliance has declined over time.

But you don’t need a sample when you have the whole universe to look at. In 2010, the juvenile arrest rate for whites was 4,243 and for blacks 9,140. The black rate is 115 percent higher than for whites. If you take the 1997 to 2008 period, the juvenile arrest rate for whites was 5,810 and for blacks 11,146, a 92 percent difference. The numbers for adults are even more lopsided against blacks than the numbers for juveniles. This seems like the ultimate evidence that the survey wasn’t representative.

During the 1990s, up to about 15 percent of the black juvenile population was arrested in each year from 1994, 1995, and 1996. By 2009, this fell to 10 percent and, by 2010, it fell to 9 percent. The one thing that we don’t know from these numbers is the rate that people are rearrested, though that data is available.

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