Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Youth curfews are a bad idea whose time has come.


Monrovia, California—A 16-year-old enroute to a fast-food restaurant is stopped and questioned five times, by five different police officers. Two homeschooled brothers are stopped 20 times as they walk to and from special classes. A 22-year-old woman is questioned twice, once by a plain-clothes officer and once by an officer in uniform, as she tries to use a public telephone. An especially young-looking high school graduate is questioned on at least 10 occasions. Yet none of these people have committed a crime.

Monrovia is one of the many American cities that have imposed curfews on their teenagers over the last several years. A 1997 survey of 347 municipalities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 80 percent had a nighttime youth curfew, up from 70 percent two years earlier. In almost half of those cities, the curfews had been imposed within the previous 10 years.

In 1994, Monrovia adopted a daytime curfew, aimed at controlling truancy as well as juvenile crime, and many other cities have followed its lead. Some towns–about 20 percent of those surveyed by the Conference of Mayors–have curfews in both the day and the evening, leaving only a narrow window of time in which young people can wander without fear of the local gendarmes. In those places, teens have to consider the time of day carefully before engaging in as innocent an activity as walking the family dog.

Some minors, of course, are exempt from the curfews. Some go to schools with year-round schedules, with different students taking their vacations at different times. Others have graduated early or are in work-study programs. Some are homeschooled. Some are simply tourists, visiting the area with their families.

But even these teenagers can be detained and questioned. In Monrovia, the police chief asked parents to register exempted children with the police department and have them carry a numbered card when out during curfew hours, a request that reminded some citizens of document checks in totalitarian states. The Home School Legal Defense Association has produced a poster that says, "Do daytime curfews work? Ask the experts." Below the text are pictures of Hitler, Stalin, and Lenin.

Such comparisons may be overblown, but curfew opponents are right to emphasize the climate of fear that such restrictions can create. In another incident in Monrovia, two men in an unmarked car followed two teenage girls who were walking to a store. Fearing for their safety, the girls started walking faster. The car stopped, and the men approached the terrified girls on foot. The men turned out to be plain-clothes officers. Not only were the girls scared witless, but their parents raised another concern: Couldn't criminals prey on their children by pretending to be police officers taking them in for curfew violations?

The curfew policy hasn't just increased parental worries. It's increased parental expenses. A minor could have to go to court to prove he has an exemption. And if he loses, the penalties can be stiff. Under Dallas' ordinance, kids and parents can be fined up to $500. In other cities, officials can force teens into counseling or their parents into parenting classes, suspend kids' driver's licenses, or sentence kids to community service work. In California alone, 21,200 young people were arrested for curfew violations in 1996. That's up from 5,400 in 1989.

In January, the Los Angeles County Superior Court struck down Monrovia's daytime curfew, arguing that it contradicted the state truancy law. That decision and the controversy surrounding it have dissuaded some other cities in the area from imposing similar ordinances. But now Monrovia has put a revised ordinance on the books, and in the rest of the country, the fight is raging on. Some legislators are even thinking of following Hawaii's lead, and imposing statewide curfews.

Governments have been imposing curfews for centuries, and not just against teenagers. In the antebellum South, they regulated what times slaves and free blacks could be on the streets. They've also been implemented during times of emergency–during World War II, for instance. America's first wave of juvenile curfew laws took hold in the late 19th century.

What's new is the nostrum's renewed popularity with politicians–and citizens' increased willingness to challenge the curfews in court. A number of lawsuits, often filed with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, are pending. The most famous is in Washington, D.C., where a law keeps people under 17 at home from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weeknights and from midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends. The plaintiffs have related a series of horror stories about the Washington ordinance. A 17-year-old member of two musical bands said his town's curfew kept him from participating in evening performances. A 15-year-old competitive swimmer noted that he has to leave his house at 4:45 a.m.–while the curfew is in effect–to practice with his team. A 16-year-old complained about being unable to participate in informal study groups after curfew hours. A 14-year-old was upset that he couldn't engage, legally, in a number of social activities, such as stopping to get something to eat after a debate tournament, going to the opera with his 18-year-old sister, and watching late-night movies with his friends. (The last teenager's mother has also joined the lawsuit, arguing that it's her responsibility to set his hours, not the government's.)

Plaintiff Tiana Hutchins would usually get home long before the curfew takes effect. But she was a flag girl with her high school band, and would liked to have socialized with her friends after performances. Even when she wasn't out, the curfew could be a problem: Police once questioned her for talking with a friend in front of her home.

Besides, there's the principle at stake. "It is unfair," Hutchins argues, "to punish good kids who are out trying to make something of themselves when only a small percentage of young people are committing crimes in the city during curfew hours."

Nor are teenagers and their families the only ones affected by the restrictions. Local businesses can also be hurt. The Biograph–a now-defunct movie theater–has also joined the D.C. lawsuit. The Biograph was an art house, the only place in the city where some films could be seen; these were sometimes scheduled as the second film of a double feature, which would typically end too late for patrons to return home before the curfew began. It also had a midnight show on weekends. It's hard to argue that the ordinance alone killed the theater, but it certainly cost it some patrons.

It's difficult to predict the outcome of such cases. Courts in different parts of the country have come up with very different results when the constitutionality of curfews has been challenged. Thus far, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to resolve such differences.

Curfew supporters don't deny that these laws restrict people's freedom. The restrictions are worth it, they argue: In exchange for giving up some liberty, citizens have enjoyed more public safety. But the empirical record on this point is mixed at best.

According to the Conference of Mayors study, crime in most cities with curfews went down after the ordinances were imposed. Twenty-six cities with a nighttime but no daytime curfew were able to provide the relevant data; according to those figures, juvenile crime rates declined by an average of 21 percent. Twenty-two cities with both day and night curfews had data to offer; they too boasted a 21 percent decrease.

But curfew opponents have raised questions about this data. Dan Macallair, associate director of the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, notes that juvenile crime has been declining in general since 1992. To determine whether curfews were a factor in the drop, the center's 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. In those few instances in which a significant effect on youth crime was found, curfews were more likely to be associated with an increase in youth crime (not including curfew citations)."

Macallair and Males compared changes in crime rates with changes in curfew-enforcement rates. (Some curfews are barely enforced, so it's not enough to note whether a town simply has a curfew.) To capture local variations, they also compared curfew arrest rates and youth crime rates for the 12 most populous counties in the state and for cities with populations over 100,000 in Los Angeles and Orange counties. They examined the ratio of youth crime rates to adult crime rates for each year, compared with curfew enforcement rates. They found "no support for the proposition that stricter curfew enforcement reduces youth crime either absolutely or relative to adults, by location, or by type of crime."

As for Monrovia: According to the Justice Policy Institute study, that city's curfew was actually associated with crime increases. "Monrovia's school day curfew…has been widely touted as a success, even winning an emotional endorsement from President Clinton during a campaign stop in Monrovia," the report said. But "youth crime skyrocketed by 53% during the school months when the curfew is most vigorously enforced, yet declined by 12% in the summer months when the curfew was not enforced."

Macallair and Males also found evidence of racial bias in enforcement of the Monrovia curfew. While about 55 percent of Monrovia's population aged 10 to 17 is not white, people of color accounted for 68 percent of those arrested for curfew violations. Most major counties did not have such disparities; in those places, the police seemed to be enforcing the curfews evenhandedly. But Monrovia wasn't the only jurisdiction with a worrisome arrest record: In Fresno and Santa Clara counties, for example, young Latinos were five times more likely to be arrested for curfew violations than white teenagers. Young blacks were three times as likely to be arrested.

Juvenile crime isn't even highest during typical evening curfew hours. It's more likely to take place right after school. In the January 1999 issue of Crime & Delinquency, Craig Hemmens of Boise State University and Katherine Bennett of Armstrong Atlantic State University reported that less than one-fifth of violent juvenile crime took place during normal curfew hours. Given that, they commented, "reliance on curfews to substantially reduce juvenile crime may be misplaced, at best."

Despite all this evidence, curfews remain popular with politicians around the country. And in the atmosphere that has followed the Littleton shootings, they aren't likely to go away anytime soon.

For Hemmens and Bennett, curfews are simply "the latest fad" in "a field strewn with the remnants of quick fixes to a serious problem." They add: "The recent surge in the popularity of curfew enactment and enforcement and the urgency with which some cities have turned to them, almost as a panacea, suggest that juvenile curfews are a sign of public hysteria rather than a reasoned response to juvenile crime and delinquency."

In other words, curfews are a bad idea whose time has come.

Margaret Davidson (davidson@vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu) is chair of the department of journalism at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.