Through his work in prison ministry, Jack McGovern has seen the same story play out time and again: One arrest leads to another until a life of crime and incarceration takes root.
"It's like a conveyor belt," said McGovern, president of Charleston-based His Way Ministry. "Once you get on it, it's very difficult to get off."
That's why a study published last week in the journal Crime & Delinquency is troubling for many. It found that nearly half of black men and almost 40 percent of white men have been arrested by the age of 23, according to Robert Brame, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and lead author of the study.
Brame said the negative impacts of these early encounters with law enforcement can be severe for those arrested, harming their ability to find work and housing, go to school and fully participate in their communities.
"A problem is that many males - especially black males - are navigating the transition from youth to adulthood with the baggage and difficulties from contact with the criminal justice system," Brame said.
What's more, in the digital age, mug shots and information on arrests are just a couple keystrokes away, and they can linger online for years even if the case in question is eventually dismissed.
"Criminal records have never been easier to acquire than they are now," Brame said. "The quaint idea of moving to a different city and starting over? Those days are gone."
The study analyzed national survey data from 1997 to 2008 of teenagers and young adults. Their arrest histories run the gamut from truancy and underage drinking to more serious and violent offenses. The study excludes arrests for minor traffic violations.
Brame and three fellow professors studied a representative sample of the larger population - about 7,000 people. Their work built on a previous study by the team that was released in January 2012 in the journal Pediatrics.
Among the key findings of the latest study were:
By age 18, 30 percent of black men, 26 percent of Hispanic men and 22 percent of white men have been arrested.
By age 23, 49 percent of black men, 44 percent of Hispanic men and 38 percent of white men have been arrested.
Women were arrested more frequently at age 23 than at age 18, but race and ethnicity didn't appear to be much of a factor. At age 18, for example, arrest rates for white, black and Hispanic women were roughly the same, hovering around 12 percent.
Next up for researchers is to examine the economic, social and law enforcement factors that can influence arrests and what role gender and race play, Brame said.
Brame said the study is the first of its kind in a generation, and it showed overall arrest rates for this age group had risen significantly, from around 22 percent in the 1960s to about 30 percent during the time frame covered by their research.
Researchers don't know the exact reason for the increase, but Brame said possible contributing factors could be an increase in police officers stationed in schools and stiffer enforcement of drug, domestic-violence and drunk-driving crimes.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he wasn't surprised by the findings, but he thinks they need to be examined within the context of societal factors such as divorce rates, violence in the home, alcohol and drug abuse, and music and movies that glorify gangster life.
In photos young thugs post on social media, they often pose with guns, drugs and gang symbols. "But often in the background, you notice very young children who live in that environment," Cannon said. "So the things that serve as positive examples are few in comparison to the things that praise that type of violent culture."
McGovern, of His Way Ministry, works with offenders in area prisons and in the community after they are released. He said he has seen the positive impact faith-based support and mentoring can have in keeping ex-cons on a straight path, but the pull of the streets is strong and re-entering society after incarceration is a difficult task, he said.
"It can be done," he said. "But it's hard work.
It's much better, McGovern said, to avoid that first arrest to begin with.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.