Not Evenings, but Idle After-School Hours Are the Prime Time for Juvenile Crime
Recent research upstages conventional wisdom of combating youth violence with curfews
BOSTON — It's 3 p.m. on a weekday and the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club teems with squirming children.
They come to this sand-colored building, in one of Boston's most crime-ridden neighborhoods, to shoot hoops and boot up computers in a safe place. But a perusal of the crowded rec room reveals a vital missing ingredient: teenagers.
"We don't allow teens in until 5:30, says Michael Mitchell, the club's director. Unlike some other area Boys and Girls clubs, the Roxbury club does not have funds for a separate teen center. "The main issue for this community is child care," he says.
The lack of after-school programs for teens is not unusual. Many communities have tried to combat a troubling rise in juvenile crime with evening curfews and programs such as midnight basketball. But recent research is prompting a fundamental shift in perceptions about lawbreaking among teens: The true prime crime hours are between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Criminologists now have hard data that shows more juvenile crime occurs between those hours than after dark. Only 17 percent of violent juvenile crime occurs after 10 p.m., compared with 22 percent that takes place in the after-school hours, according to FBI statistics.
"This is the time period that really needs our attention, not after midnight," says James Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston and author of a recent study on juvenile crime trends. "The lion's share of juvenile crime occurs in the afternoon, when kids have too much time to kill, literally."
President Clinton touted this new research when introducing his youth-crime initiative in Boston in February. To help prevent juvenile crime, the president called for the funding of 1,000 after-school programs. Congressional committees are now drafting the legislation.
Roxbury's Mr. Mitchell would welcome any boost for teen programs. "With funding, we can possibly do something more," he says.
But criminologists say financing 1,000 programs would only begin to address the challenges faced by impoverished teens at a time when many other education and social programs are being cut back. "It's a drop in the bucket. All this is symbolic politics," says David Brotherton, sociology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The reason after-school hours are so rife with youth crime comes down to sheer numbers: More parents are working and that leaves more teens unsupervised in the afternoon than at any other time of the day.
The trend is not limited to inner-city youth, either, says Gene Stephens, professor of criminal justice at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The difference lies in the types of crimes - in the suburbs it's often shoplifting, in the cities it's car theft - and how the justice system treats the two groups, he says. Inner-city teens who commit violent crimes, for example, are more likely to land in jail. In the suburbs, authorities often contact parents to deal with the problem.
To curb youth crimes, researchers say, restructuring of the school schedule and more community participation will be required.
"I think these kids just need to be tracked every minute," says Joy Dryfoos, a researcher in New York and author of a Carnegie Foundation-funded study, "Adolescents at Risk." Keeping schools open all day and year round enables teens to build on what they learn in the classroom, she says. "It brings in resources to strengthen the schools and allows a link to be made between what goes on in class and after school."
Mentoring programs where adults work one-on-one with teens have also shown to be an effective crime deterrent. "Mentoring is one of the few remedial programs that really works," says Professor Stephens. In addition to limiting a teen's opportunity to commit crime, time with an adult also reduces a teen's desire to break the law, he says.
Simply having research that shows the worst hours for youth crimes gives policymakers the concrete data needed to address the problem.
"That's the hope anyway," says Mr. Fox. He says the president's initiative could also help push policy in a positive direction. "The amount of money that Clinton announced is not going to help every kid everywhere, but I think it does set an example."
To Mitchell, of the Boys and Girls Club in Roxbury, keeping kids from committing crimes is not complicated. "Basically," he says, "kids want to do good and if we can provide a place for them, they can do it."