Youth curfews have been introduced in 78 out of 93 large US cities

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Youth curfews popular with American cities
but effectiveness and legality are questioned

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

21 July 2009: At least 500 US cities have curfews on teenage youth, including 78 of the 92 cities with a population greater than 180,000. In most of these cities, curfews prohibit children under 18 from being on the streets after 11:00 pm during the week and after midnight on weekends. About 100 cities also have daytime curfews to keep children off the streets during school hours. The curfews are designed to prevent crime, increase parental responsibility for their children, and give police greater ability to stop people involved in suspicious activity.

| History | Effectiveness | The courts | Crime prevention |

Youth curfews are popular with the public because they are inexpensive relative to other crime-fighting tools and have an easy-to-understand logic: If kids are home, they won’t commit crimes or be victims of crimes. However, there is little empirical evidence that curfews deter crime and reduce juvenile victimization. Curfews are also challenged on constitutional grounds. 

The first youth curfew was adopted by Omaha, Nebraska in 1880. In 1884, President Benjamin Harrison called curfews “the most important municipal regulation for the protection of children in American homes from the vices of the street.”

Chicago, the nation’s largest city with a curfew, passed its law in 1955. By 1960, 60 of the 110 US cities with a population over 100,000 had curfews. Thirty years later, 200 US cities had a population over 100,000, and 150 of these cities had curfews. In 1996, President Bill Clinton endorsed youth curfews for helping “keep our children of harm’s way.” In the late-1990s, the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities began issuing Best Practices for cities to follow when enacting curfews.

In 2000, when 337 cities had curfews, Bob Knight, then-President of the National League of Cities and mayor of Wichita, Kansas, called curfews “a growing trend in the United States as city officials look for answers to ensure the safety of youth in their communities.” Since 2000, the number of US cities with curfews increased an estimated 50 per cent to about 500.

In the earliest years, curfews were aimed almost exclusively at keeping young criminals off the street. Today, new curfew legislation often tries to solve more complex social ills, such as the inability of parents to control their children and the alarming number of innocent children who are the unintended victims of drive-by shootings and other adult violence.

Three years after San Antonio, Texas enacted a curfew, the victimization of youth dropped 84 per cent. Detroit, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and other cities report similar results. Still, the precise reasons for the decrease in crime rates are difficult to discern. There are many factors – weather, for example – that must be considered. “Despite their popularity with local governments, little is know about the effects of curfew laws on youth outcomes,” according to a study of the impact of juvenile curfew laws by Patrick Kline of the University of Michigan,

There are several methodological problems which make an empirical study of curfews difficult. Cities enact their curfews in different years; some in response to an outbreak of youth violence, others as a measure to prevent youth violence. This complicates the comparison of before-and-after crime rates between cities. Curfews also appear to effect on youth above the curfew age, who look younger and are thus often stopped by police. Juvenile arrests increase significantly in most cities with curfews, and the long-term impact of this criminalization of youth is unknown. For these and other reasons, according to Kline, “it’s not surprising that past studies have typically failed to find an effect of curfews on juvenile crime.”

The courts
In addition to citing the lack of definitive research that curfews reduce crime by youth, opponents also maintain that curfews prevent parents from exercising full control over their children and allow children to be unreasonably detained. Curfews, according to opponents, are a violation of an individual’s constitutional rights to freedom of movement, freedom of expression and association, and equal protection under the law, as well as the due process right to raise one’s children without undue interference from the government.

Several urban curfew laws have been tested in court. In 1991, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged Dallas, Texas’ curfew law. The US Supreme Court let the Dallas law stand on the grounds that it allows several exceptions for an underage person to break the curfew, such as coming home from work or carrying a note from their parents. Many cities now use the Dallas stature as a model for their curfew laws.

Still, the ACLU and others have been successful in striking down curfews in a number of cities. Rochester, New York provides a good example. Rochester enacted a night time curfew in 2007. In 2009, the New York Court of Appeals deemed it unconstitutional.

After finding that the curfew unconstitutionally infringes upon the free speech rights of youth, the judges wrote in their decision, “We also conclude that the curfew imposes an unconstitutional burden on a parent’s substantive due process rights. The city asserts that the ordinance promotes ‘parental supervision' of minors… But the curfew fails to offer parents enough flexibility or autonomy in supervising their children.”

The judges also wrote, “Further, we conclude that the crime statistics produced by the defendants do not support the objectives of Rochester’s nocturnal curfew. Although the statistics show that minors are suspects and victims in roughly 10 per cent of violent crimes committed between curfew hours… what they really highlight is that minors are far more likely to commit or be victims of crime outside curfew hours and that it is adults, rather than the minors, who commit and are victims of the vast majority of violent crime – 83.6 pe rcent and 87.8 per cent respectively – during curfew hours.”

Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy reacted harshly to the court’s ruling: “Unfortunately, this decision takes away our capacity to use the curfew as a common sense public safety tool.” The New York Civil Liberties Union responded by saying, “Improving public safety is a laudable goal. And there are ways to accomplish it that don’t involve infringing on the Constitution.”

Successful crime prevention
While the effectiveness and constitutionality of curfews will continue to be studied and debated in universities, courts, and City Halls, what seems clear is that, at best, a curfew is a tool to identify a problem, not a solution.

Cities with the most effective curfews, such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, do not deliver merely punitive consequences to children, but connect them to counseling, social, and recreational programs. They offer mentoring and positive adult role models and leadership in schools and neighborhoods. They establish good communications between police, parents, schools, social agencies, and youth. Curfews, in other words, are one part of a comprehensive safety net for children and families.

As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybek explains, “We are all responsible for the kids in our community.”

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