Time after time, curfews prove useless

James Alan Fox, July 21, 2003

A recent wave of teenage violence in and around Boston has given new momentum to an old idea: juvenile curfew laws. Apparently, the Lynn police are attempting to enforce a decade-old local ordinance that prohibits minors from roaming the streets between midnight and dawn. Other cities, including Brockton and Boston, are debating the strategy as well.

The practice of rounding up teens in the wee hours is hardly a novel or uniquely local idea. Hundreds of cities across America have instituted curfews, at least for some period of time.

Nowhere is the juvenile curfew law any harsher than in New Orleans. The "Big Easy" isn't so easy on its younger residents, maintaining an 8 p.m. weekday restriction for minors during the school year, expanded to 9 p.m. during summer vacation. In Minneapolis, there's even a teenage curfew at the famed Mall of America, which had become a popular hangout for bored kids on frigid evenings.

Without any shred of evidence as to whether the curfew idea has any crime-fighting merit, it has been embraced by politicians of all stripes. The 1996 presidential campaign, for example, had both nominees - Bill Clinton and Bob Dole - advocating juvenile curfews, notwithstanding the fact that such moves are local not national initiatives. Of course, for both presidential hopefuls, the curfew was a symbolic gesture for their "family values" advocacy. What did they have to lose? Certainly not any votes. Those directly affected by these restrictions weren't old enough to count on Election Day.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino, to the contrary, has repeatedly battled against the popular tide, arguing that such restrictions punish the good kids along with the bad. Boston has for years successfully used curfew restrictions, but only on a selective basis as probation conditions for those youngsters who have proven their dangerousness after dark.

Aside from the important civil liberties question, which led to a Washington, D.C., curfew being struck down as unconstitutional, why not have curfews? It's not that curfews are so bad; it's just that they're not that good. In the D.C. legal challenge, in fact, the court held that there was no evidence that young people are more likely to be the victim or perpetrator of violence during the curfew hours, thus failing to justify the restriction on any public safety grounds.

Midnight curfews attempt to incapacitate kids at the very time of day when very few juvenile crimes occur anyway. According to time- of-day patterns of youth violence, fewer than 10 percent of robberies and assaults committed by juveniles occur between midnight and 6 a.m.

After midnight, most teens - the good, the bad and the tired - are asleep. In effect, curfews essentially prohibit kids from committing crimes while asleep!

During this time of shrinking resources, it seems unwise to deploy police officers in the "graveyard shift" to watch for underage pedestrians and then escort them home or to the station. A greater bite of crime potentially comes from responding to trouble situations, not restless teens.

It is clear why many people find the concept so appealing. After all, most can agree that few youngsters have any business walking around the neighborhood at 2 a.m. Of course, curfew or no curfew, those juveniles who are out misbehaving can and should be punished, but specifically for the misbehavior itself.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course, and the best evidence comes from a 1999 California study by the Justice Research Institute. Analyzing long-term statewide trends, the researchers concluded that teen curfew laws had no effect on youth arrest rates for either violent or nonviolent offending.

Unfortunately, we tend to reject and ridicule positive steps like midnight basketball yet embrace negative steps like midnight curfews.

When it comes to our teenagers, we'd much prefer to say "no" than "yes." Perhaps instead we should re-explore ways to engage youth in healthy, structured pursuits - activities more appealing than wandering the streets, be it by day or by night.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.