In response to growing public concern about crime, cities and counties across the United States are turning to an old tool: curfews for minors.
Curfews, proponents argue, reduce crime and protect youth by keeping them off the streets. Curfews, however, appear to be ineffective according to research, and some juvenile justice advocates and experts warn of unintended consequences such as increased racial profiling and strained relationships between police and teens.
This year, more than a dozen cities and counties, including Washington, D.C., Memphis, Tennessee, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, Sea Isle City, New Jersey, and Fulton County, Georgia, reinstated or enforced juvenile curfews. Curfews were made permanent in Philadelphia and Chicago last year.
Vicksburg, Mississippi, recently reinstated its curfew following a January shooting that killed a 13-year-old and injured two others. In addition, the city has implemented a community policing program and allocated $200,000 for a center where children and their families can receive mentoring, tutoring, and mental health support.
“If you limit the opportunity for youth to be out at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, one o’clock, and two o’clock in the morning, you limit and control that exposure, and then you put it back where it ought to be — in the home,” Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. told Stateline. “I’m a firm believer that you can’t be too harsh.” You must approach it holistically, taking into account the family, the school, and the community.”
He and police Chief Penny Jones both stated that crime rates in the community have decreased since the curfew was implemented.
“Kids will grow accustomed to it, and it will become the norm.” “All we want is for our youth to be safe,” Jones wrote in an email.
However, some elected officials took the opposite stance. Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a statewide curfew ban into law in June, prohibiting both cities and counties from enforcing them. The prohibition will go into effect in September.
Texas state Rep. David Cook, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said he hopes the statewide curfew ban will result in “a better relationship between juveniles and law enforcement agencies.” Cook also expressed concern that curfews might infringe on constitutional rights.
“There’s a lot that we as a state can do to improve the juvenile system,” Cook told Stateline. “The more community-based programs we can have, the better off juveniles will be in terms of trying to reform their behavior for a better future.”
The District of Columbia is the most recent city to impose a juvenile curfew. The city’s curfew prohibits those under the age of 17 from remaining outside after 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Minors who violate the curfew will be taken to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services and reunited with their families, as well as receiving rehabilitative services and support.
“Our goal isn’t to arrest our young people, but we want to ensure the safety of our youth here in the District of Columbia,” said Pamela Smith, the city’s police chief, at a press conference earlier this month.
Some cities, including Baltimore and Atlanta, are also changing their curfew policies, opting to reduce or eliminate fines and other penalties in favor of educational and community-based programs such as counseling, mentoring, and recreational activities. In other jurisdictions, parents and guardians can still be fined or imprisoned if their children violate curfew.
Curfews are they effective?
President Bill Clinton called on cities and towns to impose nighttime curfews on teenagers in 1996. According to the National Youth Rights Association, more than 400 towns, cities, and counties now have youth curfew laws.
However, juvenile curfews in the United States are “ineffective at reducing crime and victimization,” according to a review published in 2016 by the Campbell Collaboration, an international social science research network. The study also discovered a slight increase in crime during curfew hours, but no effect during non-curfew hours.
The Social Science Research Network published a paper in 2014 that examined ShotSpotter data from January 2006 to June 2013 to determine the effect of the District of Columbia’s juvenile curfews on gun violence. The authors discovered that when the curfew was in effect, gunfire incidents increased by 150%. Curfews, according to the authors, keep bystanders and witnesses off the streets, reducing their deterrent effects on crime.
However, some local officials claim that curfew enforcement has resulted in a decrease in crime within their jurisdictions.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, officials reported a 20% decrease in overall crime during curfew hours in the first month of enforcement.
Curfews, according to experts, will disproportionately affect young people of color.
According to William Carbone, a lecturer and executive director of the Tow Youth Justice Institute at the University of New Haven, juvenile curfews may lead to increased racial profiling.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in curfews at all,” Carbone told Stateline. “When you implement a measure, such as curfews, you risk worsening relationships between youth and police, as well as the risk of profiling.” It’s just one of the many areas in which children of color face disproportionate disadvantage.”
Curfews, according to Carbone, may also shift crime from one area to another because “kids don’t obey geographic boundaries.”
“If there is a curfew in one location, [minors] may relocate to another.” “It doesn’t put a stop to crime,” Carbone explained.
Curfews are more likely to harm young people of color due to existing disparities in law enforcement interactions, wrote Candice Jones, president and CEO of the Public Welfare Foundation, a justice advocacy organization, in an email.
“They could be doing something legitimate — coming home late from a game or studying at a friend’s house — but now a curfew has given them reason to interact with law enforcement, which we know can be especially dangerous for Black and Brown youth.”
According to statistics released by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, at least 11,680 children under the age of 17 were arrested in 2020 for curfew violations or loitering. According to federal data, Black minors have been arrested at twice or three times the rate of their white counterparts for curfew and loitering violations for decades. The overall juvenile arrest rate for all offenses peaked in 1996 and has since declined.
Alternatives to incarceration for young people
Some curfew opponents argue that approaches like cognitive behavior therapy, a type of talk therapy that helps identify and change thought patterns, and tailored drug or mental health treatment programs are more effective, according to Carbone.
“Treatments and interventions, as well as as little contact with police and courts as possible, are very important ingredients in trying to prevent juvenile crime,” Carbone said.
Carbone asserted that diversion — approaches that divert youth away from the juvenile justice system — is an effective proactive measure for engaging and preventing youth crime.
“It’s very powerful for a young person to walk into a courtroom and see the person on the bench, for example, wearing the long black robe, pound a gavel and say, ‘I find you delinquent.’ “Kids internalize it and then live up to it,” Carbone says.
To combat this, advocates recommend that communities prioritize comprehensive year-round programs that allow children to participate in sports, cultural, arts, and other social activities.
In Maryland, the Department of Juvenile Services launched the Safe Summer initiative in June, with the goal of directing more resources to counties with higher rates of youth violence and creating youth employment opportunities. Connecticut lawmakers approved legislation that expands diversionary programs in the state and encourages police to refer children to juvenile review boards rather than court proceedings.
City leaders in Tacoma, Washington, launched the city’s first free summer youth program, which included recreational activities such as basketball tournaments, video games, art, and music.
Instead of fining children and their families for curfew violations, communities should invest in social services and address the underlying causes of juvenile delinquency, according to Dafna Gozani, a senior policy attorney with the National Center for Youth, a nonprofit law firm and juvenile justice advocacy group.
“We see that communities with access to resources have the lowest rate of youth crime, and this is not by chance,” Gozani explained. “We also see that supporting the criminal justice system is incredibly expensive, and this comes at the expense of investing in things like education, health care, and pro-social activities — all of which actually prevent kids from entering the system.”
Axl, a 19-year-old Kentucky resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for privacy reasons, found enormous value in the program offered by Youth Advocate Programs, a national nonprofit that provides community-based alternatives to out-of-home placements.
He stated that the program assisted him in developing healthy coping mechanisms, improving his communication skills, and accepting his transgender identity.
“I had a lot of support in the program, and it taught me not to be afraid to be who I want to be.” “It demonstrated that I can be unique without having to blend in with everyone else,” Axl said.