For the past several decades, one of the most troubling issues facing cities and towns throughout the country is the prevalence of juvenile crime. Affecting rural, urban and suburban communities, this problem is not unique to a specific geographic region. Criminal activity and delinquency among youth occurs (to varying degrees) across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. As parents, civic leaders, and park and recreation professionals, when confronted with such a pervasive matter, we must seek ways to provide safe, structured programs that help youth fill unsupervised time with positive activities.
The primary catalyst in the rise of delinquency among minors is largely attributable to major shifts in workforce demographics. Since the 1960s, our country has experienced an almost 50 percent increase in the labor force participation rate of women. Today, almost 76 percent of women with school-age children are working, either in homes of two-parent earners or homes of single-parent earners. While this change to the U.S. workforce has been positive, we have largely been unable to mitigate ancillary impacts to working families, including an increase in unsupervised time for youths. This becomes apparent when considering that the majority of juvenile crime occurs predominantly during the week — as opposed to on the weekend — in the hours between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. In the unsupervised time between when school ends and parents return from work, children are far more likely to commit crime, engage in risky behaviors or be victims of crime.
As recreation providers, what is our role in addressing the costs, both social and economic, of juvenile crime? Studies have shown that the most essential requisite for programs to reduce delinquency is that they provide structured, supervised activities to youth. One study on the impact of structure in after-school programs found that during unstructured time problem behaviors increased. Research has suggested that facilities, particularly recreation centers, with poorly, or no, structured activities, attract youth with social problems and that frequent participation at the centers is linked to high rates of juvenile delinquency. Therefore, recreation centers that do not provide access to programs focused on active participation can serve as conveners for youth to commit delinquent acts.
Studies on active, structured recreation focused on youth have shown strong relationships to positive outcomes. Youths who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely than non-participants to have higher self-esteem, greater academic achievement and lower incidences of delinquency. Furthermore, at-risk youths have been found to especially benefit from guided recreation programming. Low-income, at-risk youth experience improved test scores in both reading and math after they begin participation in after-school programs. Data has also shown that students who reported spending no time in afterschool extracurricular activities were 57 percent more likely to drop out of high school, 49 percent more likely to use drugs and 27 percent more likely to have been arrested than students who spend as much as four hours in structured activities.
Park and recreation agencies have the ability to provide the programs that can address the root causes of juvenile crime. Because the types of leisure in which youth participate have profound impacts on social development, active and adult-supervised recreation programming available through park agencies are positioned perfectly to equip youth with the tools that develop positive social and cognitive skills, self-confidence and a sense of community.
David Kurtz is NRPA’s former Research Specialist.