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  • Prevention Science, Vol. 5, No. 4, December 2004 ( C 2004)

    Do After School Programs Reduce Delinquency?

    Denise C. Gottfredson,1,3 Stephanie A. Gerstenblith,1 David A. Soule,1Shannon C. Womer,1 and Shaoli Lu2

    After school programs (ASPs) are popular and receive substantial public funding. Asidefrom their child-care and supervision value, ASPs often provide youth development and skill-building activities that might reduce delinquent behavior. These possibilities and the obser-vation that arrests for juvenile crime peak between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on school days haveincreased interest in the delinquency prevention potential of ASPs. This study examined ef-fects of participation in ASPs conducted in Maryland during the 19992000 school year and themechanism through which such programs may affect delinquent behavior. Results imply thatparticipation reduced delinquent behavior for middle-school but not for elementary-school-aged youths. This reduction was not achieved by decreasing time spent unsupervised or byincreasing involvement in constructive activities, but by increasing intentions not to use drugsand positive peer associations. Effects on these outcomes were strongest in programs thatincorporated a high emphasis on social skills and character development.

    KEY WORDS: after school programs; delinquency prevention; substance abuse prevention.

    After school programs (ASPs) are increasing innumber and popularity. A poll of Maryland residentsfound that more than 75% of voters in the state fa-vored expanding the use of ASPs (Advocates for Chil-dren and Youth, 1999). States are creating mecha-nisms to provide public support (such as after-schooltax credits) for parents who send their children tosuch programs (Advocates for Children and Youth,1999; Vandell & Shumow, 1999). Federal funding forASPs is also on the rise: The 21st Century CommunityLearning Center program, authorized under Title X,Part I, of the Elementary and Secondary EducationAct, was a component of the Clinton administrationseffort to help families and communities keep theirchildren safe and smart. It is now a major aspectof the recent No Child Left Behind Act, of whichthe Bush administration was a proponent. These

    1Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, The Universityof Maryland, College Park, Maryland.

    2Student in the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences Pro-gram at Columbia University.

    3Correspondence should be directed to Denise C. Gottfredson,PhD, 2220D LeFrak Hall, Department of Criminology and Crim-inal Justice, The University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland20742-8235; e-mail:

    Centers are meant to enable school districts to op-erate public schools as community education centersthat focus on providing academic assistance, drug andviolence prevention programming, technology educa-tion, art, music, recreation, and character education.The U.S. Department of Education (2000) has fundedover 6,800 schools in more than 1,400 communitiesto become community learning centers. Congress ap-propriated $200 million to the 21st Century Com-munity Learning Centers in 1999 and has increasedthe level of funding every year to $1 billion in 2002(

    Public support for ASPs is fueled by two mainfactors: The need for quality care and supervision cre-ated by the changing nature of the work force, and evi-dence that young people are more likely to be arrestedduring the after school hours than at any other time.Currently, 69% of all married-couple families withchildren ages 617 have both parents working outsidethe home. In 71% of single-mother families and 85%of single-father families with children ages 617, thecustodial parent is working. The gap between parentswork schedules and their childrens school schedulescan amount to 2025 hr per week (U.S. Departmentsof Education and Justice, 2000). Public opinion polls

    2531389-4986/04/1200-0253/1 C 2004 Society for Prevention Research

  • 254 Gottfredson, Gerstenblith, Soule, Womer, and Lu

    show that many people view ASPs as a way to pro-vide constructive activities or meaningful roles toyoung people during this time (Farkas & Johnson,1997).

    Interest in ASPs as a delinquency preventionmechanism rose dramatically after Snyder et al. (1996,Sickmund et al., 1997) reported that juvenile crime, asmeasured by arrest rates, peaks during between 2 p.m.and 6 p.m. on school daysjust after-school is dis-missed. D. C. Gottfredson et al. (2001) found a similarpattern, although less marked, in youths self-reportsof delinquent behavior. The incidence of arrests dur-ing the after school hours has drawn the attention ofprevention practitioners and policy-makers and en-couraged the exploration of the potential of ASPs forreducing delinquency.


    The most common understanding of the reasonfor higher rates of crime during the after school hoursis that youths experience lower levels of adult super-vision during these hours. Students are more likelyto be unsupervised during the hours between schooldismissal and when parents return from work. Chil-dren and adolescents who are not supervised by anadult for extended periods of time are at elevated riskfor engaging in problem behavior. Richardson et al.(1989) showed that eighth-grade children who carefor themselves for 11 or more hours per week with-out an adult present are twice as likely to use drugsas those who are always supervised. The researchersfound that this was true even when youth charac-teristics that might explain the relationshipfor ex-ample, socioeconomic status and living with a singleparentwere statistically controlled. Their statisti-cal model implied that the higher levels of druguse among the unsupervised teens might be ex-plained in large part by their greater association withdelinquent peers. This finding is consistent with thebroader literature on family risk and protective fac-tors which has shown repeatedly that parental su-pervision is related to lower levels of delinquentbehavior, substance use, and high risk sexual be-havior (Biglan et al., 1990; Block et al., 1988;Cernkovich & Giordano, 1987; Dishion et al., 1991;Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1999; McCord, 1979)and that greater parental supervision decreases as-sociation with delinquent peers, which is the largestpredictor of subsequent problem behavior (Dishionet al., 1991).

    Many ASP advocates believe that ASPs will alsoreduce delinquent behavior by providing construc-tive alternatives to misbehavior. A prominent the-ory of delinquency causation (social control theory;Hirschi, 1969) initially predicted that involvement inconstructive activities would protect against involve-ment in delinquent activities, but the data have failedto support this component of the social bond. Hirschi(1969) found that time spent on activities which re-flect an underlying commitment to conventional pur-suits (e.g., hours spent on homework) is related to thecommission of fewer delinquent acts, while time spenton activities which reflect a premature orientation toadult activities (e.g., time spent riding around in cars)is related to the commission of more delinquent acts.But Hirschi found that adolescent activities that haveno apparent connection to these poles (e.g., clubs,volunteer and service activities, youth organizations,sports, hobbies, television, etc.) are unrelated to thecommission of delinquent acts. Simply spending timein these activities is unlikely to reduce delinquentbehavior.

    Subsequent research on this potential mecha-nism has been mixed. Survey research has shown thatgreater involvement in extracurricular activities is re-lated to lower levels of delinquent behavior amonghigh risk youths (Mahoney, 2000), is unrelated todelinquent behavior (Gottfredson, 1984) or is relatedto higher levels of delinquent behavior (Polakowski,1994). Similarly, some studies have found that sub-stance use is higher among students who report no in-volvement in extracurricular activities (Jenkins, 1996;Shilts, 1991; Van Nelson et al., 1991; Yin et al., 1996).Other studies have found that such involvement is un-related to or is related to higher levels of substance useor substance-related risk behaviors (Carlini-Cotrim& Aparecida de Carvalho, 1993; Mayton et al., 1991;Pope et al., 1990). Because these correlational stud-ies often do not control for potentially confoundingfactors, it is difficult to interpret their results. An in-verse association between involvement and substanceuse might imply that involvement reduces use, thatusers avoid extracurricular activities, or both. Also,these studies are not entirely relevant for understand-ing the mechanisms that might relate participation inASPs and problem behavior because involvement inextracurricular activities, as measured in the studiesreviewed here, may or may not be as a result of par-ticipation in ASPs, and in fact may not even occurduring the after school hours. Additional research isneeded to better understand the role of involvementin reducing delinquent behavior and substance use,

  • Do After School Programs Reduce Delinquency? 255

    but the existing research suggests that other mecha-nisms may be more important.

    Many ASPs provide structured educationaland character development activities that havedelinquency prevention potential. Higher levels ofacademic performance, a belief system that supportsconventional social norms, and social competencyskills have been consistently related to a variety offorms of problem behavior (Bachman, 1975; Jessor,1976; Jessor et al., 1980; Kandel et al., 1978; Smart &Fejer, 1971; Smith & Fogg, 1978; Wills & Shiffman,1985). If these factors can be manipulated by ASPs,the programs may reduce delinquent behavior andsubstance use.


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