When kids have access to after-school programs, crime and incarceration go down, shows a new report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nonpartisan organization of over 5,000 law enforcement professionals.

Juvenile arrests around the country have declined 70% while participation in after-school programs has increased by over 50% since 2000. Yet more programs are necessary to meet the need, especially in rural areas and communities of concentrated poverty.

“For every one participant in a quality afterschool program, there are two more who’d participate but can’t because there are no programs available to them,” note authors of the report.

Dovetailing on the report’s release in mid-October, Lights on Afterschool, the only national rally for after-school programs, just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Over 1 million people participated in more than 10,000 registered events on Oct. 24, according to Magen Eissenstat at the Afterschool Alliance.

For the 13th consecutive year, New York’s Empire State Building was lit up in yellow and blue on Oct. 24 for Lights on Afterschool. (Image: Afterschool Alliance)

How the time of day plays into juvenile crime

The reason for emphasizing programs that take place after school is multifold.

An analysis of FBI and law enforcement agency records showed that school day arrests for youth peaked between 2-6 p.m. in 36 of the 46 states with data available. The arrests were mainly for assault, theft and crimes related to drugs.

These statistics back up what law enforcement officers have observed over the years — juvenile crime spikes during the time when youth are traditionally unsupervised due to parents being at work.

When the link between increased youth arrests and these hours became evident in the late 1990s, thousands of concerned law enforcement leaders, including police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors, joined forces to combat the problem by promoting solutions that steer kids away from crime. After-school programs have proven to be one of the best solutions.

Case in point is the LA’s BEST program in Los Angeles, which focuses on intellectual, physical, and social and emotional development throughout the city. A longitudinal evaluation of the program found youth who consistently attended were 30 to 50% less likely to commit a juvenile crime.

Beyond a distraction tactic: The multiple benefits of programs

It’s not just about keeping youth busy so they don’t get in trouble. Quality programs give them tools to succeed. According to the report, effective after-school programs incorporate sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (SAFE) activities that complement the student’s grade-level instruction. The development of important personal and social skills is also key.

“Afterschool programs can increase school-day attendance, student test scores, and reduce dropouts. All leading to lifelong success and achievement, which is integral to preventing crime and keeping our communities safe,” says Chief Ken Corney of the Ventura, California, police department in the report. “I believe quality afterschool programs are the best form of long-term crime prevention a community can provide.”

Here’s evidence: 26 years’ worth of data demonstrate that every student remaining with the program at Pathways/Senderos Center in New Britain, Connecticut, graduates from high school, and 91% enroll in post-secondary education. When compared to national and state statistics, these students are less likely to take drugs or engage in violence.

Keeping attendance up and reducing dropout rates has positive short- and long-term benefits when it comes to lowering crime. The hours when school is in session came in a distant second for juvenile arrests in the report, so barring crimes committed at school, these kids weren’t attending class. Additionally, statistics show that 6 in 10 inmates nationwide haven’t graduated from high school.

Boredom plays a big factor in students dropping out of school as well as getting in trouble after school, explains Jim Hollis, executive director of Calculus Roundtable, a San Francisco Bay Area-based Afterschool Alliance member recently featured in the news.

Image: Calculus Roundtable

Maximizing engagement with early wins and celebrated failures

Keeping students in attendance at their after-school programs is an obvious prerequisite to all the positive outcomes mentioned so far. Hollis’ insight into what captivates youth helps prevent students, who may be struggling with math and science, from getting discouraged or bored.

“We promote early wins and celebrate fast failures,” says Hollis, whose STEM program takes advantage of both online games and hands-on components. “Even when kids try the activity and don’t get it right, they’re like, ‘Aww, we almost got it!’ and eagerly attempt it again — the point is we’ve got their attention.”

They’re also extremely loyal to friends. Sometimes it’s this very disregard for themselves as individuals in favor of their group, tribe, squad or gang that gets them into trouble.

First, Hollis lets them self-select their teams. Then, he harnesses their strong competitive and group spirit to get them hooked on learning — even if their primary motivation is not letting down their teammates.