High Arrest Rates among Young Adults: Q&A with Dan Stier

Jan 9, 2012, 7:04 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

Stier Dan Stier, Network for Public Health Law

A recent study in Pediatrics found that by age 23, up to 41 percent of young adults have been arrested at least once for a non-traffic offense. According to the study, early risk factors that can lead to arrests include poor academic performance, abuse at home, hyperactive behavior and poor concentration or language development. And because all of these factors can be identified by pediatricians, the authors say intervention by family members and pediatricians can direct at-risk children to programs that could prevent arrests and help them steer away from violent and unsafe behavior.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Dan Stier, JD, director of the Network for Public Health Law, about other measures that may help keep many young adults out of prison.

NewPublicHealth: Were you surprised by the high rate of arrests reported in the recent Pediatrics study?

Dan Stier: Over the years I have done a fair amount of work with the judicial system as a litigator and more recently as a member of the public health community. I’m not totally surprised, but that number is shocking to almost everyone, I think.

NPH: Why are there such high rates of arrests?

Dan Stier: Over the course of the last couple of decades, we have beefed up police forces and officers on the streets and created a "tough on crime" attitude where they arrest first and ask questions later. I’m not trying to be critical of street officers who have such a tough job to do, but it’s an attitude that emanates from our policymakers down to law enforcement.

At the Network for Public Health Law, we’re doing work with courts that takes a public health approach to law on these issues. New courts that have been created such as veterans courts and drug courts, take more of a treatment approach, when possible, instead of an incarceration or punishment approach.

NPH: How do we provide appropriate training for police officers and judges?

Dan Stier: That’s why I’m working with courts on behalf of the Network. That’s post-arrest, but it’s where decisions get made on punishment or treatment. I am getting great traction because of our health in all policies approach within the public health community, with recognition that we have lots of fantastic partners. Courts are an important public health partner. We need to, first of all, sensitize courts to those public health approaches and then be there to provide the training in terms of what public health entails.

NPH: What are the ramifications of these high arrest rates?

Dan Stier: When you are quick to steer a young person into the criminal justice system and have them incarcerated, you’re looking for a lot of problems in terms of lessons they learn while incarcerated. With new public health approaches in the courts, if you can apply a treatment method to that younger person instead of incarceration, you’ll hopefully get them turned around on a proper track.

A lot of the problems that are prompting arrests are caused by societal factors, such as troubled homes, poverty, troubled neighborhoods, and a lack of healthy communities. I’m not saying that there are no kids that should not be incarcerated, there certainly are. But so many suffer from societal factors. In addition to the issues I mentioned, young adults at risk may need mental health treatment or family support. I think law enforcement and ultimately the courts need to be very aware of these issues and consider the possibility of a treatment approach, rather than an incarceration one.

Drug courts have gone furthest in terms of the treatment approach. They were first established twenty years ago and have spread quite broadly. When you get a kid involved in this court system, they look at the potential for treatment rather than punishment. And the evidence shows the courts to be quite effective—getting kids on a track to be drug free.

>>Bonus: Read a blog post from the Network for Public Health Law on building a partnership between public health and law enforcement.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.