Curfews, criminalization won't work

Posted: October 24, 2011

The excessive criminalization of Philadelphia's young people has only pushed them toward flash mobs and other violent activities. Instead of responding with more criminalization - such as the city curfews instituted last summer - officials should be encouraging structured play, public spaces, and harmless social gatherings.

Recent years have seen a decline in public spaces available to young people, Love Park being a famous example. As the city planner Edmund Bacon once wrote, "After decrying the drugs and crime of our young people, [City Council] adopted legislation forbidding the one harmless thing that young people had developed strictly on their own, the wonderful national network of skateboarding focusing on Love Park. They branded those who participate in it as criminals."

The Philadelphia nonprofit Youth United for Change and the Advancement Project documented the rise of that approach in their report "Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison." It examines a rise in arrests and other draconian penalties for relatively minor infractions in the Philadelphia schools, as well as a generally hostile environment for students.

"When security guards searched me in school for my cellphone," one female student is quoted as saying, "the usual routine is for them to pat me on my chest and rub their hand down my cleavage. Then they make us lift and shake our bras out. Also, they would run their hands down from our waist to our ankles. Next, they turn us around and pat our back pockets. At the very end, they use the wand to search us thoroughly."

Efforts to promote structured play, by contrast, have been proven to decrease violence in Philadelphia schools. At Charles Drew Elementary, the nonprofit organization Playworks helped improve student participation, cooperation, and focus in classrooms by organizing play at recess and other times, and violence went down schoolwide, according to administrators. But uncertain district and school finances have put such successes in jeopardy; arts and play programs are often the first on the chopping block.

Youths in neighborhoods that support play tend to be better off and less violent, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. Students participating in at least one hour of extracurricular activity are 49 percent less likely to use drugs and 37 percent less likely to become teenage parents. Accessible public spaces help young people develop positive social relationships, learn conflict resolution, and become more civic-minded.

There are signs that policymakers are learning this. The city curfew, for example, was accompanied by extended hours at recreation centers - a sign that officials understand criminalization won't solve the problem.

Rather than categorizing all young people as probable criminals, the city and schools must adopt more policies that support and encourage law-abiding youths. When kids don't have ways to play peacefully, they find other ways to gather and entertain themselves. But if we stop treating our children like criminals, they'll stop playing that role.

Ari Melman is a junior studying business administration at Drexel University and an Inquirer Off Campus contributor. He can be reached at

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