Sen. Marsha Blackburn on support for after-school program

Published 9:56 am Friday, June 7, 2024

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Violent gun incidents up 11.6%. Property crimes up 15.8%. Robberies up 19.6%. And murder rates up 52.3%.

These startling statistics – reported in the latest Memphis Shelby Crime Commission report for 2022-2023 – confirm what most Tennesseans already know: Memphis is facing its worst crime wave in almost two decades.

Tragically, much of this crime is driven by juvenile offenders, who are committing more and more aggravated assaults, robberies, and carjackings against innocent city residents. In fact, after years of steadily declining juvenile crime, in 2023 Shelby County saw a staggering 4,546 juvenile charges, up 37% from 2021.

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The spike in Memphis follows similar increases in juvenile crime in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., where the average age of a carjacking suspect last year was 15 years old. It is no coincidence that this increase in juvenile crime is happening just as radical district attorneys across the country – including in Shelby County – are pushing soft-on-crime policies that make it easier for offenders, including juveniles, to avoid pre-trial detention.

To make matters worse, young people – facing little supervision after the end of the school day and before their parents get home from work – are becoming increasingly lured into gangs that plague cities with theft, drug dealing and murder. Across the country, 64% of violent juvenile crime happens on school days, peaking between 2 and 6 p.m. And in Memphis, there are at least 30 criminal gangs recruiting children as young as 8 years old into their operations.

Every young American and Tennessean deserves the opportunity to succeed and avoid the dangers of criminal activity. Thankfully, Congress has an incredible opportunity to help ensure that happens.

In the U.S. Senate, I have introduced – alongside Senator Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) – the bipartisan Advancing Frequent and Tailored Education to Rebuild Safe Communities and Help Orchestrate Opportunities and Learning (AFTER SCHOOL) Act, which would create a grant program, administered through the Justice Department, for local communities like Memphis to establish, maintain and strengthen after-school programs with the goal of reducing violent crime among juveniles.

Time and again, after school programs – ranging from athletics and tutoring to music and volunteer work – have proven effective at keeping young Americans out of trouble and focused on their personal development. Across two different studies conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, for example, after school programs helped reduce arrests among at-risk teenage boys by 28-35% and violent crimes by 45-50%. Recidivism rates among participants, meanwhile, fell 21%.

At the same time, studies have shown that after school programs improve behavior in classes, decrease the likelihood of drug abuse, and promote academic success. Many of these programs, including some in Memphis, are funded through the federal government’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) initiative, which provides funding to states and localities for after-school programs that advance academic achievement. But CCLC’s grants are usually competitive, excluding many schools that desperately need these resources.

The AFTER SCHOOL Act would solve this issue, significantly expanding the number of schools eligible to receive funds to establish and strengthen after-school programs, including in Memphis. That’s a big reason why the Memphis City Council unanimously passed a resolution in support of the bipartisan legislation, which also received the backing of Memphis Mayor Paul Young, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and State Senator Brent Taylor.

With juvenile crime on the rise, the lives of countless young Tennesseans and Americans are at stake. By passing the AFTER SCHOOL Act, Congress can help secure a brighter future for Memphis and communities across the country.

(Marsha Blackburn represents Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.)