Arts Programs Help Break the Cycle of Delinquency and Violence

Photo of teenagers performing in Will to Power to Youth’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
©Shakespeare Festival/LA

Youth from Richmond, VA, performing in Will Power to Youth's production of Romeo and Juliet in August 2007.
A growing body of research indicates that arts programs can play a vital role in improving academic performance, school attendance, and critical life skills for youth across the socioeconomic spectrum. For at-risk youth, participation in arts programs can interrupt the drift to a negative lifestyle, helping to replace destructive behavior with positive activities and interests. In one research initiative sponsored by OJJDP and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), arts programs for at-risk youth in three cities were found to reduce court referrals for delinquency while increasing school achievement, effective communication, and teamwork.

For more than 10 years, OJJDP has partnered with NEA to support arts programs that help steer at-risk youth away from delinquency and reintegrate juvenile offenders back into the community. One such program, Will Power to Youth, hires young people to produce, adapt, and perform a Shakespeare play during the summer. The 7-week session brings local youth together with professional artists who, in addition to their roles as teachers and drama directors, often serve as mentors. Students explore thematic issues in Shakespeare's plays and learn about the artistic and mechanical aspects of staging a play.

In Richmond, VA—one of the sites participating in OJJDP's Gang Reduction Program—teenagers studied Romeo and Juliet during the summer of 2007 and performed an adaptation of the play set in Richmond's Jackson Ward neighborhood during the 1930s. The youth designed the period costumes and the stage sets. In the process of planning the production, they gained professional skills in the arts and increased their knowledge about the history of their community. Created by Shakespeare Festival/LA, Will Power to Youth is widely recognized for its effectiveness in combating truancy, dropping out of school, violence, and unemployment.

OJJDP funding through the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has also made possible the recent expansion of NEA's Shakespeare for a New Generation program to support performances and educational activities targeted to youth involved with the juvenile justice system in six locations around the country.

Following are descriptions of how several theater companies have been reaching out to youth with innovative activities and programming:

  • The California Shakespeare Theater (Berkeley, CA) conducted acting workshops with youth housed at Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro and held an extended residency for youth with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Their activities culminated in a performance of scenes from Hamlet.
  • The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (Cold Spring, NY) provided youth at Phoenix House, a long-term drug and alcohol treatment center, with interactive workshops in improvisation and character study. Discussions helped youth understand parallels between Shakespeare's themes and their own lives.
  • The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's Midnight Shakespeare program served students from Civicorps School, a charter school for juvenile offenders, through an exploration and staging of The Taming of the Shrew and Julius Caesar.
  • Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, MA), through its Shakespeare in the Courts program, helped juvenile offenders improve their communication skills and teamwork through the selection of a Shakespeare script, the exploration of the language, and performances of Hamlet and Henry IV.

left quote Arts programs for at-risk and delinquent youth offer vocational skills while fostering self-confidence, discipline, and teamwork. These skills are the indispensable building blocks of future success. right quote

—Jeff Slowikowski
Acting OJJDP Administrator

Mural Arts Program Transforms Lives, Enriches Communities

Since 2008, OJJDP has funded the City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program (MAP), the largest public arts program in the country. MAP pairs artists with underserved, at-risk, and adjudicated youth to create murals that transform public spaces in a way that reflects the community's culture and history.

OJJDP funding supports MAP's Restorative Justice project, which provides art instruction, mural making, and community service to youth in the juvenile justice system. With professional artists serving as teachers and mentors; inmates, ex-offenders, and juvenile delinquents are offered the opportunity to develop not only vocational skills, but also life skills such as teamwork, problem solving, conflict-resolution, and community engagement. A major goal of this effort is to build a foundation for youth's successful reentry into their communities.

Photo of a teenage boy painting a mural in the City Of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program.
©2010 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

The City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program offers youth a wide range of opportunities for personal and vocational development while enhancing civic spaces.

OJJDP is assisting MAP in expanding its restorative justice program to delinquent youth from Saint Gabriels Hall (Audubon, PA), Glen Mills School (Glen Mills, PA), and VisionQuest (Philadelphia). Thus far, the youth have completed two murals: "Sacred Spaces" and "Love? Speak for Me," which explores the theme of preventing dating violence. MAP plans to partner with Temple University’s Criminal Justice Department to provide youth reentering their communities with mentors who can expose them to the possibilities of education, including college. The success of MAP in these three locations will be measured by tracking rates of reoffending and rearrest, program attendance, community service hours, and youth enrollment in other MAP programs.

Since 1984, MAP has created more than 3,000 murals and works of public art. The program engages more than 100 communities each year in the transformation of neighborhoods through the mural-making process.