Nearly half of black males and almost 40 percent of white males in the U.S. are arrested by age 23...Do you find that as startling as I did? I've only known a few people who have ever been arrested, and several of those are not even American. Are the arrest rates much higher today than when I was in my early 20s?
I couldn't find any authoritative data on that question, but I did find several sources that dramatically cited increased arrest rates (250% to 600%, depending on who you want to believe) starting in the late '60s and early '70s – right when I reached that age. That immediately led me to suspect the war on drugs, so I went looking for data on that, and I found it.
Of the over 11 million arrests last year, 13% were directly for drug abuse. Note that this data is for arrests, not people. Some people were arrested multiple times in the year. What's not uncovered by this data is how many of the other crimes related to drugs in some way (generally by users desperate to come up with the money for another high-priced dose of illegal drugs). The dramatic increases in other crimes coincident with the war on drugs suggests that the related crime rates are very high indeed.
That same report gives the overall arrest rate as 3.7% of inhabitants per year. Even if you figure a very high average number of arrests – say, 2 per arrested person per year – that works out to more than 1% of the population being arrested every year. That's really hard for me to wrap my brain around, given how few people I know with an arrest record.
Maybe half my friends are hiding something...