Dec. 19, 2011 -- By age 23, up to 41 percent of American adolescents and young adults have been arrested at least once for something other than a minor traffic violation, according to a new study published today in the journal Pediatrics.
The study gives no indication of how many of these young people committed violent crimes versus how many were rounded up for more minor infractions, such as disturbing the peace. But the study's authors say such a high percentage of arrests may point to a host of potential health and behavioral problems that put young people at risk for criminal activity.
"An arrest usually happens in context. There are usually other things going on in a kid's life," said study author Robert Brame, professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
In the study, Brame and his colleagues analyzed responses to a national survey of more than 7,000 young people between 1997 and 2008. They found that between 25 and 41 percent of the respondents reported one arrest by the age of 23; 16 to 27 percent of the respondents reported being arrested by age 18.
Not all of the young people remained in the study for all 11 years, accounting for the uncertainty reflected in the wide ranges of the study's findings.
But even at the lowest ends of these ranges, the study's findings were higher than projections of youth arrests made in 1965, the last time scientists studied this topic.
"Those are alarmingly high numbers," said Dr. Eugene Beresin, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School. "There are social, economic, educational and family risks associated with arrests. And we all have to be worried about that."
Although an arrest doesn't necessarily mean a child, teen or young adult is a criminal, previous research has connected run-ins with the law with other problems -- drug addiction, physical or emotional abuse and poverty, to name a few.
Beresin said a high number of arrests could also indicate a high rate of untreated psychiatric disorders, another factor that has been linked to criminal activity. According to the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a nonprofit group, between 50 to 75 percent of incarcerated young people have diagnosable mental health problems.
Whatever the cause of the arrests, the study's authors suggest that pediatricians are primely placed to observe and confront potential problems with their young patients, with an ability to counsel children and their parents and direct them to services that can help.
"Pediatricians should be aware that these arrests are a high prevalence occurrence," Brame said. "A report of an arrest could be a gateway to a broader conversation about what's going on."
A pediatrician's authority and relationship with troubled patients may be ideal, but their ability to actually help patients out of a cycle of criminal activity is less certain. Due to physician shortages in primary care, many pediatricians are overwhelmed by patient loads or undertrained to confront problems such as psychiatric disorders. In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for better training for all pediatricians in helping their young patients with mental health issues.
Even if a pediatrician tries to help a patient with a criminal record, Beresin notes that the services that are meant to help troubled youth are limited, and budget belt-tightening in many states is making them even scarcer.
"It's like Ghostbusters, who are you going to call? There are very few people to call." Beresin said. "We're really asleep at the wheel right now when it comes to these problems with our young people."