Curfew laws, taking effect hundreds of years ago in Europe, originated among the upper classes of society to enforce standards of control upon the lower classes. The theory behind curfew laws is that crime originates from those in the lower classes, and enforcing restrictions upon them will limit the amount of crimes that they have the opportunity to commit. Essentially, curfew laws assume an entire group of people to be guilty. In modern times, the guilty “lower class” is assumed to be young people.
Governments have been imposing curfews for centuries, and not just against teenagers. In the antebellum South, whites regulated what times slaves and free blacks could be on the streets. Curfews have also been implemented during times of emergency; for instance, during World War II. America’s first wave of juvenile curfew laws took hold in the late nineteenth century.
Currently three-fourths of United States cities of more than 100,000 population have curfew laws on their books. Some of the more stringent laws enact daytime curfews for those eighteen and under, and impose fines of up to $500 for repeat offenders.
Dozens of California cities have enacted daytime curfew laws, which give the police power to stop and question school-age kids seen in public during school hours — and fine them or sentence them to community service if they are supposed to be in school. Many other cities, in California and elsewhere, are considering such laws, and California is considering a statewide daytime curfew.
According to Ambassador Alan Keyes, “One of the hallmarks of a free society is the law abiding citizen’s ability to go about unchallenged by state authority, secure in the assumption that the presumption of innocence protects him from inquiry or interference without clear and just cause. Curfews contradict this ability, and contribute to the slavish state of mind that characterizes people who live under totalitarian systems, and who must be prepared at all times to give to state authorities some explanation even for their innocent pastimes” (statement on daytime curfew by Alan L. Keyes, June 1996).
Curfew laws were brought about in the United States against young people largely because of two widespread misconceptions:
That juvenile crime and violence is higher than adult crime and violence. To quote Michael A. Males in his 1999 book Framing Youth, “Teenagers do not account for a high percentage of America’s social problems. Teens’ share of problem-causing does not even exceed their share of the 12-and-older population in most cases. Conversely, what experts and the media aren’t saying about the deteriorating behaviors of adults is even more incredible.” Later in his work, Males states, “The truth, abundantly obvious from official crime reports over the last one to two decades, is that it is not minority teenagers, but adults over the age of thirty — white adults most specifically, who consistently display the largest increases in serious (felony) violent, property, and drug-related crime rates . . . . Youth deploy decreases in felonies.”
That curfew laws help in decreasing juvenile crime and violence. In recent years, cities and localities across the United States have expanded the use of youth curfews to address growing public concern about juvenile crime and violence. By reducing the number of young people on the street during certain hours, curfews are assumed to lessen the number of circumstances in which youth crime can occur. It is also assumed that curfews reduce youth crime by deterring young people from being on the streets at certain hours out of fear of being arrested.
To determine whether curfews were a factor in the drop of crime amongst young people, the Justice Policy Institute examined data from the state of California from 1978 through 1996, the first comprehensive study of the issue. Their answer was unequivocal. “This study found that youth curfews do not reduce youth crime”, Macallair and study co-author Mike Males wrote. “This was true for any race of youth, for any region, for any type of crime.”
Even an online poll cast by ChannelOne.com shows that of 82 responses, a resounding 71% of those who responded say that teen curfew laws do not lower crime rates (August 16, 2000).
A survey of crime statistics in cities where curfews have been tried suggests that curfews fall far short of expectations:
In Detroit, a curfew was established in the wake of the city’s “Devil’s Night”. Despite increased police presence and free cable television on Halloween, arsons in Detroit virtually doubled, from 223 in 1989 to 441 in 1994.
By contrast, when San Francisco rolled back its curfew law in 1990 following reports revealing that minority youth were significantly over-represented in curfew arrests, juvenile crime – as measured by arrests – actually dropped by 16 percent.
In Phoenix, a curfew imposed in 1993 was combined with an increase in recreation center hours to help kids find healthy alternatives to “hanging out”. During the summer when recreation facilities were kept open late, juvenile crime dropped as much as 55 percent. But in the fall, when recreation hours were curtailed, crime by juveniles rose again.
In 1995 in Oakland, California, city officials evaluated the potential costs and benefits from a curfew before rejecting it as an option for their city. Their analysis revealed that, like the rest of the country, 80% of juvenile crime in Oakland occurs between the hours of 9:00 AM and 10:00 PM, times unaffected by most curfew laws.
In the few instances where curfew enforcement had any effect at all, it was associated with a slight increase in juvenile crime in a couple of communities.
We believe that curfew laws:
Violate a young person’s First Amendment rights to speak and assemble. Curfews are a kind of martial law for juveniles that interferes with the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The inconsistency with curfew laws is unmistakable after a young person attends school during the daytime, recites the Pledge of Allegiance (“liberty and justice for all”), and then gets confronted by a police officer for no reason other than age later that same night. Of the 2,000 respondents in a 1995 poll, 71% stated that they already participate in volunteer programs in their communities. If not for curfew laws, that number would probably be higher than it currently is in many communities around the nation.
Criminalize normal and otherwise lawful behavior. Behavior such as standing on a street corner violate many curfew laws. But standing on a street corner doesn’t harm anyone, and cannot possibly be classified as offensive, unlawful or juvenile.
Cause emotional harm to young people. The act of needlessly placing tens of thousands of young people in juvenile detention centers for petty acts of delinquency may scar them for life simply creating more social problems to deal with in the future. Some states (Alaska, specifically) require arrest of young people for breaking curfew laws. The criminalization of peaceful movements only will harm the victims of these arbitrary laws in the long run. Furthermore, the possibility that the street offers a safer option than staying at home for some teenagers must be taken into account. (Homicide in the home is among the top five causes of death for children.) Forcing children to choose between violating curfew or remaining at home with an alcoholic or abusive parent places them in an untenable situation.
Violate the rights of law-abiding young people. Only about six percent of adolescents are responsible for two-thirds of all violent crimes committed by juveniles (Richard Bodine, The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, 1999). Curfew laws ruin the lives and experiences of the vast majority of young people who are civil and do not commit crimes of any sort. A society that forgets to distinguish innocence from guilt in its citizens may end up with citizens who no longer care about or respect the difference in their actions.
Dictate to parents how to raise their children. Americans believe in strong families, in which parents acknowledge and live up to their responsibilities as the primary sources of guidance for their children. But how does it encourage responsible parenting if those who provide good examples for their children find their lives inconvenienced and their children harassed? Curfew laws interfere with the decisions and schedules of every member of a family with children. Ultimately, state and local authorities should have no right to enforce absolute rulings dictating how to raise children.
Limit responsibility. Under many curfew laws, the parents of curfew violators must pay fines up to $500. Holding one person responsible for another’s actions is a violation of due process and fundamentally unfair.
Are arbitrary and ridiculous. Curfew laws are mandated by the state and local governments upon young people largely because young people cannot vote to effectively change the laws being imposed. Curfew laws are a mere subterfuge to allow police to get kids off the street, and for that reason they make great politics – because it looks good. Furthermore, there is nothing more arbitrary than curfew laws, which vary in length and penalty from town to town in the United States.
Are discriminatory. Not only are curfews discriminatory towards young people, who are responsible for less crime than the adult population, but studies have found that curfew laws produce discriminatory enforcement in minority communities. Specifically, African-Americans are more readily penalized because of curfew laws. Additionally, curfew laws affect people who look or dress differently. Such laws give police officers the power to suspect someone of possession of drugs or contraband solely based on three very arbitrary and discriminatory factors: their age, their race/religion and their appearance.
Are overly simplistic and don’t address the deeper causes of youth violence. Alternatives to curfew laws may actually be more helpful. For instance, programs which will occupy young people such as art programs, music festivals or peer groups would be more proactive than curfew laws. Programs like these would most likely take the crime out of the hearts of people and develop more respect from the community for the law and law enforcers.
Divide communities and limit individual pursuits. Young people are not allowed to explore their communities because of the curfew laws which keep them locked in their homes unwillingly, sometimes even in the daytime. As their older friends and relatives reach the “magic age”, they are left behind. Young people feel isolated because they are denied opportunities to participate in social and political activities as equal members of their communities. Of the 2000 teens surveyed in a 1995 nationwide poll, 86% stated that they wished to engage in specific activities to help their communities prevent crime. Curfew laws prevent their ideas from becoming a reality.
Welcome young people into activities that go on after curfew hours. Young people can enjoy late night concerts, conversations in coffee shops, and late movies as much as adults. Barring them from these activities only serves to increase the antagonism and fear that often characterizes the relationship between older and younger people. When people of all ages truly live together in the community, feelings of suspicion and hostility are reduced.
Enforce currently existing laws against property crimes, violence, and disturbing the peace. Using curfew laws needlessly wastes our law enforcement resources on behavior which harms or disturbs no one, and punishes an entire group of people for the bad behavior of a few of its members. Police should be concentrating on stopping people who are actually committing crimes against others, rather than those they believe might commit such crimes.
Repeal curfew laws. Curfew laws came about to control young people, but many young people ignore curfew laws just as adults ignore many laws they find baseless and needlessly intrusive, such as drug laws. The time has come to restore responsibility, individuality and common sense amongst young people – and that can only be done through the repeal of senseless curfew laws.