When researchers examined arrest data from 1997 to 2008, a third of all young adults and almost half of all African-American men had arrest records by age 23. Yet most arrests are for low-level crimes like disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and drug possession. Nevertheless, America's 18,000 police agencies arrest about ten and a half million people every year.
If we are to reduce mass incarceration, we're going to have to change that -- especially because an arrest now almost always means jail time.
According to data gathered by the Vera Institute of Justice from the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there is a disturbing trend. In 1994, for every 100 arrests, 70 people ended up in jail. By 2016, 99 of every 100 people arrested ended up in jail.
But what if police focused on interventions other than arresting people? After all, the crime rate has dropped sharply in the last 25 years, so arresting so many people on low-level charges does not appear to be necessary for public safety.
Systemic issues press for arrest
According to Vera's report, one reason arrest rates remain high despite lower crime rates is that many police departments measure their officers' performance based on the total number of traffic stops they perform, arrests they make, and summonses and tickets they issue. It's much harder to quantify success when the officer chooses merely to warn or to take no action -- even when those outcomes were more appropriate.
Another reason police may be under pressure to arrest people is civil asset forfeiture. When someone is arrested for any crime, their property can be seized by police and prosecutors if it is deemed to be the proceeds of or used in relation to criminal activity. At that point, the defendant has to prove their property is "innocent" or police and prosecutors get to keep it. This has often been called "policing for profit."
There is hope
Criminal justice reform is a hot issue right now, and many police agencies are working to reduce over-arrests and mass incarceration. For example, one program called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is widely replicated. Its goal is to connect people with non-jail services that can help them turn their lives around. However, these alternative services need to be increased and improved if they are to have an impact.
Once suggestion Vera has for change is to work toward a world where police are not the default first responders to emergencies that are non-criminal in nature. Social workers, for example, could respond instead of police to many 911 calls and use non-punitive problem-solving techniques to resolve the problem.