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Millennials Are More Likely to Face Arrest Than Gen X'ers

New research suggests that "broken windows" policing has resulted in more young people getting arrested for trivial offenses—especially young people of color.
A police officer wears a body camera during an anti-Donald Trump protest in Cleveland

Millennials are more likely than members of previous generations to get arrested, even if they haven't committed a serious crime.

Clichés about Millennials are the best. They love avocado toast! They're weighed down by student loan debt!

And they're more likely than members of previous generations to get arrested, even if they haven't committed a serious crime!

Wait—you haven't heard about that last one? Perhaps that's because it's the conclusion of a recently released study, which suggests there's a widespread chance that an escalation of urban policing tactics in the 1990s has had significant unintended consequences.

"There is a loosening relationship between actually committing a crime and being arrested for the Millennial generation—something that was not true for the previous generation, Gen X," lead author Vesla Weaver, who teaches political science and sociology at John Hopkins University, said in announcing the findings. She added that this disconnect is particularly pronounced among young black men.

"The criminal justice system, we argue, slipped from one in which arrest was low and strongly linked to offending, to one where a substantial share of Americans experienced arrest without committing a crime [more serious than illegal drug use]," she and her colleagues Andrew Papachristos and Michael Zanger-Tishler write in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.

The researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a nationally representative sample of young American adults who are asked about both their criminal histories (if any) and their interactions with law enforcement. The team focused on two cohorts: 5,837 who had been between the ages of 18 and 23 in 1979 (Gen X), and 8,683 who'd been in that same age range in 1997 (Millennials).

Between those years, many urban law enforcement agencies switched to a more assertive, "proactive" style of policing, including strategies such as New York City's "Stop, Question, and Frisk" (SQF) program.

That program's "explicit purpose was to maximize contacts with citizens purely for the purpose of questioning them in non-arrest situations, in the hope that some [contacts would] yield fruit," the researchers write. "SQF was shown to target blacks and Latinos far more frequently than whites."

This approach led to an increase in arrests—including among people who, by their own recounting, had committed no crime other than using marijuana or some other illegal drug.

"In the 1979 cohort of 18- to 23-year-olds, only 10 percent had ever been arrested by the police, vs. 25 percent of their counterparts in the 1997 cohort," the researchers report. "In the 1979 cohort, if one did not report unlawful behaviors, one was somewhat unlikely to report experiencing arrest (18 percent of those who reported being arrested reporting no offending). By the 1997 cohort, it was the opposite: Fully 70 percent of the people who reported they had been arrested did not report engaging in a property or violent crime."

The researchers also found a huge racial divide in reported arrests. Between 1997 and 1997, "the relationship between reported crime and arrest tilts upward for both blacks and whites," they write, "but the increase is much more pronounced among blacks."

The result: "Black men who do not report engaging in crime in 1997 have larger odds of arrest than their counterparts who do report it in 1979."

These are disturbing statistics, particularly in light of another study published last month, which found that minority youngsters who had been stopped by a cop (but not arrested) subsequently engaged in more acts of juvenile delinquency, such as theft and vandalism, than those who had not experienced such an interaction. If a simple stop can inspire anti-social behavior, perhaps driven by a newfound identity as a gangster, imagine the effect of actually being arrested.

The jury is still out on how effective these proactive policing strategies are in reducing crime. But whatever their benefits, society must come to grips with one unintended result—an increasing disconnect between criminal behavior and the likelihood of arrest.

"If this decoupling persists or widens over time," Weaver and her colleagues conclude, "we will have institutionalized a system that departs from common normative assumptions that the justice system should target actual offenders and leave alone those who abide by the law."