Millions of children grow up in a household that involves abuse, neglect, or other forms of dysfunction. These experiences have collectively become known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Because a person’s upbringing is foundational for the rest their life, having experienced ACEs can have long-term implications for adulthood. Unfortunately, for those who experience ACEs, adulthood is often marked by instability and dysfunction.
One marker of adversity in adulthood is being arrested or incarcerated. In the United States, the reach of the criminal justice system is vast. With over 2 million persons behind bars on any given day, the United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world. Beyond incarceration, millions of individuals encounter the police each year, and many of these interactions result in an arrest that potentially establishes a formal criminal history which can limit a person’s labor market prospects and civic participation. The criminal justice system is also deeply stratified across racial and socioeconomic lines, with low-income Black, Hispanic, and Native American persons being especially likely to experience an arrest or incarceration in their lifetimes.
Given that millions are impacted by involvement in the criminal justice system each year, it is important to identify early life antecedents that increase the risk of arrest or incarceration. Doing so can be foundational to the development of early prevention and intervention efforts that divert young people away from future arrests or incarceration. Previously, researchers have found that youth who are exposed to ACEs are more likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system. Still, most people age out of crime, and by the time people reach adulthood, the chances of being arrested or incarcerated have typically decreased substantially. Despite this, some adults remain involved with the criminal justice system even as adults. Understanding whether ACEs have an enduring effect that leads people to be at a greater risk for criminal justice system involvement as adults is an important, but understudied topic.
Our study, published in Academic Pediatrics, examined the relationship between ACEs exposure and criminal justice system contact in adulthood. Using data from of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adulthood Health, we examined the relationship between the number of ACEs a person experienced and their experiences with arrest and incarceration at multiple points of adulthood.
Do those who experienced more ACEs during childhood and adolescents have a greater risk of experiencing arrest and incarceration by the time they are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s?
We found that people who experienced more ACEs early in life, especially accumulating four or more separate types of ACEs, were at a higher risk of having been arrested and incarcerated as an adult (between the ages of 24-42 years old). Additionally, those with more ACEs had greater number of arrests and had served multiple stints of incarceration during their adult years. These findings are consistent with a broader line of research documenting that ACEs are associated with a range of negative social outcomes and serve as a catalyst that harms one’s adult life trajectory.
Our study offers important insights into how traumatic experiences early in life can have a significant enduring effect on what adult life looks like. Those who experience an accumulation of childhood adversities are at greater risk of experiencing arrest and incarceration by adulthood and spending longer periods of their adult life behind bars than individuals who have a childhood defined by less trauma and adversity. This suggests the need for early and effective detection of ACEs among children across the United States. When ACEs are properly screened for by health care professionals, they open up the possibility of youth receiving appropriate and effective interventions that provide supports needed to disrupt pathways into the criminal justice system and provide opportunities for a brighter future.
Alexander Testa, PhD, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. You can follow them on Twitter @testaalex
Dylan B. Jackson, PhD, Johns Hopkins University. You can follow them on Twitter @Dr_DylanJackson
Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW. University of Toronto. You can follow them on Twitter @kyletganson
Jason M. Nagata, MD, MSc. University of California, San Francisco. You can follow them on Twitter @jasonmnagata