Recreation and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention: How Recreation Professionals Can Design Programs That Really Work. (Research Update)

By Munson, Wayne W. | Parks & Recreation, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Recreation and Juvenile Delinquency Prevention: How Recreation Professionals Can Design Programs That Really Work. (Research Update)


Munson, Wayne W., Parks & Recreation


In 1999 there were 2.5 million arrests of persons under the age of 18. Twenty-seven percent of the arrests involved females, and 32% were youths under 15. Although arrests for violent and property crimes dropped 23% and 24% respectively from 1995 to 1999, the numbers are still staggering (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2000). Prevention has been a primary goal of law enforcement agencies and those in related fields who seek to divert youths from antisocial behavior at an early age. Comprehensive strategies involving health, family, employment, education and recreation can play an important role in preventing juvenile delinquency, defined as "criminal behavior committed by minors" (Siegel & Senna, 1997, p.10).

The popular press and criminology literature concur that there is a relationship between recreation and delinquency prevention. However, research on this relationship is lacking. This is unfortunate because leisure is a highly relevant factor in the lives of adolescents rivaling school, peers and family in importance (Adams & Gullotta, 1983; Munson, 1993; Silbereisen & Todt, 1994).

Social reformers in the mid to late 19th century advocated recreation as a means to combat delinquency (Cross, 1990; Larson, 1994; Witt & Crompton, 1997). Jane Addams, for example, believed that wholesome activities provided by public recreation organizations were "the only agency powerful enough to break into this intensified and unwholesome life" (Addams, 1913, p. 24). The belief among many professionals, past and present, is that with adult guidance, these activities promote "initiative, build character, discourage delinquency and provide laboratories for training in citizenship" (Larson, 1994, p. 46). Such activities are often referred to as "recreation," which is defined as "voluntary non-work activity that is organized for the attainment of personal and social benefits including restoration and social cohesion" (Kelly, 1996, p. 27).

While traditional beliefs suggest that recreation has the potential to prevent delinquency, most studies have not conclusively demonstrated that it does (Reed, 1948; Shanas & Dunning, 1942; Truxall, 1929). Carefully planned investigations are needed that explain relationships among critical variables, and that determine effects from recreation activities and programs on youth's attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (McGuire & Priestley, 1985, Munson, 1988, Witt & Crompton, 1997). Programs should focus on prevention, have long-term goals and objectives, and be part of a comprehensive plan (Witt & Crompton, 1997). They also should be based on a theory that "determines the construction of programs" (Kralj & Allen, 1982, p. 224).

Why are Some Juveniles Delinquent?

Many theoretical models from the social sciences have been promoted to explain juvenile delinquency. Psychological approaches include: behavioral, psychodynamic, social learning, self concept and cognitive theory. Sociological perspectives used to explain juvenile delinquency include social disorganization, strain, and the sub-cultural deviance theory (Kratcoski & Kratcoski, 1996).

The social control theory provides an explanation of how recreation and juvenile delinquency are associated (Agnew & Petersen, 1989; Siegel & Senna, 1997). Control theories suggest that delinquent acts occur when a youth's bond to society becomes weak or is broken (Hirschi, 1969). Several social control theorists have tried to explain the association between recreation and delinquency (Gold, 1963; Nye, 1958; Schafer, 1969). Hirschi (1969) suggested that the probability of delinquency is reduced when an individual is high in one or more social bonds such as attachment, commitment, involvement or belief.

How Can Park and Recreation Programs Help Prevent Delinquency?

Hirschi (1969) explains several ways to develop social bonds through attachments, commitment, involvement and bonds. …

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