In 2016, there were 10,662,252 people arrested in the United States. That’s one person arrested every three seconds. Yet until now, it has been virtually impossible to find out who is being arrested and for what.
It’s not because the information is not being collected. It is. But the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the two organizations most responsible for analyzing the information, have not been able to communicate it effectively.
Therefore, a nonprofit criminal justice research and policy organization called the Vera Institute for Justice just spent two years combining eight different federal databases and creating a tool to analyze arrest trends. Users can see arrests at the county, state and federal levels alongside offense types, the demographics of the arrestees and whether the arrest is related to a solved crime.
What became apparent is that, the vast majority — 80 percent — of the time, police arrest people for minor offenses and drug crimes, and that most of the arrests for drug crimes are for simple possession. Only 5 percent of all arrests involve violent crimes.
Moreover, the data confirm that African-Americans are targeted for drug arrests at 2.39 times the rate of white people, despite the fact that whites and African-Americans use drugs at similar rates. And, the disproportionate rate of arrests of African-Americans has grown by 23 percent in the last 40 years.
Although African-Americans account for only 12 percent of the population, they make up 28 percent of all arrests. Previous research has shown that they are charged more often, convicted more often, and sentenced to more time than whites, as well.
Interestingly, the struggle to end the War on Drugs does not seem to be convincing police to reduce drug possession arrests. Although a number of city prosecutors and U.S. attorneys have said they will no longer prosecute marijuana possession, police are still arresting many people for the offense.
Furthermore, the percentage of arrests that involve drug violations has increased since 1980, while arrests for other offenses have dropped as the crime rate has dropped. Between 1980 and 2016, drug-related arrests jumped by 171 percent. That said, they only represent a little over 1.5 million of the nearly 11 million arrests each year.
“We really want to see a national conversation about whether or not this is a good use of resources,” said a spokesperson for Vera. “Are we potentially creating more harm than good by arresting people for what are essentially really low-level, trivial offenses?”
Does arresting millions of people make us safer when the vast majority of those arrests are for nonviolent, usually minor offenses?