OP-ED: The Myth of Juvenile Crime in the Summer

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marcschindler1-fullLate August, often considered the dog days of summer, is the time of the year when parents of school-age kids start to wonder if the break is perhaps a little too long; a little too unstructured. Those with the resources take off for vacations.

Those without the means are left behind to continue to hope kids can fill their days in meaningful ways.

It seems like summer has always created some anxiety for adults, who worry that youth will end up in trouble if they don’t have enough to do. Part of that worry may be justifiable: We all want young people engaged in positive activities that can enrich their lives and connect them to opportunity.

On the other hand, it’s worth asking if that anxiety is in part rooted in a stigmatization of youth? Do we, as adults and as a culture, get just a little bit nervous when we see groups of kids out and about in the summer, hanging around, doing not much of anything? Are we simply more anxious about kids in the summer because, well, we see more of them outside more often than we would in the winter months?

image-fullIn years past, the Justice Policy Institute braced itself for the inevitable “kids gone wild” story of the summer that would usher in all kinds of knee-jerk reactions rooted in hysteria rather than evidence. Year after year, headlines filled with examples of dramatic high-profile crimes that seemed to justify all kinds of anti-youth responses like ineffective curfews and deeply problematic stop and frisk procedures.

Thankfully the typical hysteria seems to have made way for more rational, developmentally appropriate conversations about youth behavior. More often, news outlets these days are discussing the fact that our justice system locks up too many people and reporting on more cost-effective alternatives to incarceration as a necessary, sane direction.

But some of our ongoing narratives and assumptions about kids in summer — particularly in our cities — suggest that stigmatization persists despite some advances in the perceptions and treatment of adolescents.

We don’t know for sure that summer crime waves even exist. In fact, recent reporting states, “Crime does not spike when temperatures begin to sizzle. Rather, police in the Baltimore and Washington corridor say there is a seasonal shift in the type of criminal acts being committed.” In other words, there is a shift to behaviors like vandalism, bicycle theft, breaking into unlocked cars and crimes of opportunity.  The data show that millions of young people across race and social classes engage in these types of activities, and that when young people are connected to school, work and meaningful relationships, they will move past these misbehaviors.

Yet a quick Google search pulls up numerous stories connecting “summer,” “boredom” and “crime,” stoking the fears of roving, restless youth. Our language continues to promote the idea that kids, without the intervention of well-intentioned adults, automatically gravitate to trouble.

That narrative has consequences for kids and communities. Baltimore, in an attempt to protect its young people, recently expanded its curfews laws that broaden the opportunity to criminalize youth. Opponents point out picking up youth for things like hanging out past 10 p.m. does little to advance efforts to promote safety and target more serious behavior with already limited resources.

And while officers are given discretion about whether or not to stop kids, other jurisdictions and communities already know that “discretion” too often means “profiling” for kids of color. In its story on the Baltimore curfew law, The New York Times reports that although only 30 percent of the residents of Kansas City are black, about 75 percent of youths held on curfew violations last year were black.

Clearly there are troubled neighborhoods and communities that need positive investments to promote health and safety, and to connect young people to the kinds of support that all of us needed as kids to transition to adulthood. But that is a need and effort that goes beyond the warmer months of the calendar.

But as adults and parents, do we need to examine our motivations for wanting kids programmed all summer and for every minute of the day? Do we want kids engaged in the summer because we fear that if left to their own devices, they automatically default to unruly gangs of teens? And, if we’re very honest, what kids are we most worried about (or afraid of)?

Again, our memories of our own youth and the data show that while mischief can happen in the summer and during the school year, that’s a far cry from the kinds of crimes that would justify contact and any kind of prolonged involvement with the justice system.

As we think about these issues, we should be willing to give kids the benefit of the doubt. The latest research also tells us that by shifting to a paradigm that supports positive, appropriate programming that improves outcomes by building on young people’s strengths, expanding their capacity to live interesting, enriched lives and giving them the opportunity to make good decisions. we’re supporting the kinds of programs that help kids and communities.

So rather than fearing the long days of summer, maybe we can start conversations that embrace it as a time when young people can begin to exercise their freedom, with some guidance and periodic oversight from caring adults. Our perceptions, language and actions should focus on channeling freedom and connecting youth to opportunity, which at the end of the day is the best thing we can do to help our young people stay on the right track and to create safer communities for all of us.

Marc Schindler is Executive Director of JPI. Amanda Petteruti is Senior Research Associate of JPI.

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