25 February 2010

Truancy Laws Prevent Juvenile Delinquency

Does increasing the minimum dropout age reduce juvenile crime rates?

Yes. Minimum dropout age requirements significantly reduce property and violent crime arrest rates for youth aged 16 to 18 years-old.

Analysis of county-level arrest data for the U.S. between 1980 and 2006, viewed in the context of minimum dropout age laws in different places at different times shows a significant and robust link between arrest rates for teens and minimum dropout age requirements.

Why? In part, because kids in school have less time available to commit crimes. Crime rates are consistently responsive to factors that involve "an incapacitation effect."

High dropouts are exceedingly likely to end up involved in crime, compared to other demographics. Even if they don't learn a thing by being required to go to school for a few more years, they are likely to be better off, because this reduces their likelihood of being arrested for juvenile delinquency, something that is almost never a positive for the person arrested, or for the victim of the associated crime.

This crime reduction happens without criminal justice system involvement. Reduced juvenile justice system costs associated with reduced arrest rates for juveniles save the states that pay for them significant amounts of money.

This may require additional education funding, but since schools typically get part of their state funding based upon student attendance rates, the increased funding happens more or less automatically. It is part of a state level entitlement to K-12 education commitment that has already been made in every U.S. state.

Legislatively, the change is easy to make. Basically, a single number in a single law has to be changed. All of the implimentation systems are already in place.

In 2006, Colorado lifted the compulsory age at which students must be in school to 17 from 16. The impact it has had on high school participation and completion in the state has been great. The number of 12th graders enrolled is up more than 20% in districts in Denver, Aurora and Adams county that have had high dropout rates. Statewide, the number of 12th graders enrolled is up by about 5%.

But, do the kids who are now in school instead of on the streets cause trouble in the schools?

No. This is a plausible guess, but the facts don't support this hypothesis. In the Denver Public School District which is seen a 23% increase in the number of 12th graders in the district, largely as a result of the one year increase in the compulsory school attendance age, "the number of out-of-school suspensions is falling — decreasing about 44 percent over the past six years."

Perhaps dropouts aren't proving to be a bad influence on kids still in school. Perhaps kids who know they have to stay in school have less of an incentive to blow it off and get into trouble. Perhaps requiring kids to go to school undermines gangs. Perhaps greater attenance makes a generalized social norm of conformity stronger. When you get down to it, it really doesn't matter why it happens. Butm reducing the dropout rate also reduces the number of instances of serious misbehavior that call for out-of-school suspensions.

Now is also an optimal time for states to make a change like this one. Unemployment rates are near record highs, and unemployment rates for teens who have dropped out of high school is particularly high. Removing them for the labor market, at least during the school day, has the indirect effect of opening up jobs suitable for others who have the hardest time finding employment. The impact is considerable. In the Denver metropolitan area, this change took thousands of people out of the bottom of the local "during school hours" labor market.

Increasing the mandatory school attendance age takes just a year to open up a significant number of jobs for those who have the hardest time finding them, on a permanent basis, while reducing crime and in school delinquency. It is hard to find any other government program that provides such unequivocally positive results while resulting in no new expenditure a state hasn't already committed to make as part of the K-12 education entitlement program.


Michael Malak said...

This correlates with the thesis of the DVD The War on Kids, which is that public schools serve as prisons.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Is a place that leaves its occupants better off than they are elsewhere really a prison?

Michael Malak said...

Aren't prisons supposed to leave its occupants better off?

Anonymous said...

My niece (16) is continually worried about being taken to court in Colo Springs under truancy laws. Her home life is so chaotic, it's a miracle she makes it to school as often as she does. At 16 she is on the hook for far too many adult responsibilities and a primary caretaker for her difficult little brother. This is one motivated girl who is punished, ridiculously, by these laws, and if she ever does go in front of a judge, I sincerely doubt he will relate to her position.

Anonymous said...

And to add: like most "underprivileged" kids, she has no health insurance. Thus, even though she gets sick a lot (not surprising, considering she can't eat breakfast and doesn't have access to healthy foods), there's no way for her to bring in a doctor's note for these otherwise "legitimate" absences. It's just infuriating that the state would punish her further for her deprivation.