I have to confess, I’m not very good with numbers.
Statistics like the death toll in Iraq, the number of starving people in the world and the rising global climate are all numbers that I am aware of, which are both alarming and of severe importance. However much like many Americans–I lazily assume–somewhere between the reality of those numbers and the impact they have on my consciousness, there is a serious disconnect. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I don’t care, but it’s more so that I can’t truly fathom those numbers, and therefore have a hard time putting them into perspective.
Nearly one in three Americans is arrested before the age of 23, according to a study based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I said to myself that I was really going to let this one sink in.
You know what? It did. I truly wrapped my head around the fact that a third of our young adults have a criminal record before they can be considered “real” adults.
However, I didn’t come to such acceptance because of some sudden feeling of empathy. It was an easy number to swallow. Teens and college students getting arrested has become a fact of life. I, like many my age, know a few people who have been put in cuffs for something more than just a speeding ticket, whether it be pot, underage drinking or other forms of adolescent mischief.
The specifics of that number, one that has jumped from less than a quarter of Americans under the age of 23 from 1965, were not available in the study that gave it, such as what crimes kids are being arrested for. One can assume that a majority in this age bracket aren’t being arrested for white collar crimes like insider trading.
Yet, it doesn’t really matter why more kids are being arrested in this country than ever before: The fact is they are. And like most disturbing numbers it serves as a mirror of our society.
What does that mirror say? It says that somewhere between how kids are being raised, the current behaviors of our nation’s youth and the way the criminal justice system interprets and handles that behavior is an issue. Like most issues, there’s a fat chance that the source is a single, easily identified glitch. It is most likely a combination of many factors varying from a bad situation at home, to laws that have not adapted to changing behaviors, to poor school systems.
Yet whatever the combination of reasons, criminalization is not the answer. Much the way that a number, like one out of three before the age of 23 is just the surface of a much bigger problem and arresting youth is usually a surface fix to deeper issues. Making a third of teens and college students criminals puts a pretty damning label on a third of those who are supposed to be shaping the future of our country.
In the end it’s more of a matter of perception than anything. Whether we are producing too many criminals or we need to redefine what we consider a criminal, something needs to change. Although numbers never lie, there is definitely something wrong with the current equation.
Daniel Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.