Erin E. Meyers

Volume 73, Issue 4, 1099-1144

A staggering number of Americans experience criminal justice contact each year, ranging from arrest to long-term incarceration. One 2014 Wall Street Journal report estimated that approximately one in three Americans are represented in the FBI’s master criminal database. Many scholars and commentators have questioned the desirability of mass criminalization and the resulting large-scale arrests.

I add new empirical context to this ongoing discussion by examining conviction rates among a nationally representative sample of young men. I find that, conditional on having been arrested, Black men are 29% less likely than their similarly situated White counterparts to experience conviction. This result may come as a surprise, given that existing research shows that Black men experience worse outcomes at the arrest and sentencing stages of criminal justice processing.

Upon further examination, the result makes sense in the context of selection effects. Supplemental analyses show that the lower conviction rate of Black men is likely driven by over-arrest (i.e., that police are likely to use discretion in arrest decisions in a discriminatory manner). This apparent disconnect between policing decisions and prosecutorial screening raises serious questions of the validity and desirability of arresting so many Black men each year.

My empirical analysis further suggests that more than 50% of Black men have been arrested by young adulthood. Each arrest is psychologically and financially costly to the arrestee, cultivates lasting stigma directed at the arrestee, limits the arrestee’s future labor market opportunities, costs taxpayer money in the form of policing budgets, and increases the likelihood of police violence. My results highlight the distributional costs of mass criminalization—often borne by Black individuals—and add context to the discussion of whether the costs of large-scale arrests exceed their benefits.