Leave the Kids Alone


In response to some flash mob criminal activity, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter imposed a 9 p.m. curfew on minors under the age of 18. Earlier this week, Mike Males, a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, persuasively argues in an op/ed that such bans are counterproductive: 

Juvenile curfews are unique to the U.S. No other country, including those in Latin America and Asia or even the U.K. during recent riots inLondon, invokes such measures except during national emergencies—and then they apply to all ages.

Although America's best measure of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey, finds violence by juveniles has plummeted to a record low and Federal Bureau of Investigationreports also show youth arrests for violent crimes at a nadir, officials and news outlets seem eager to postulate a crisis. For example, news reports have depicted murders of school-aged youths in Chicago as an alarming new trend even though coroners' records show today's urban youths, including Chicago's, are safer from homicide than at any time in at least 40 years.

Similarly, the notion that mass curfews and crackdowns have become necessary because of violence enabled by social media is dubious. In reality, only the term "flash mob" is new. The 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles began within 20 minutes of its instigating incident as a few onlookers quickly grew to a mob of hundreds, then thousands. "Youth in Danger," a 1956 report by congressional investigators, cited numerous mob incidents, including ones in Philadelphia identical to those now labeled as flash mobs. The social media of the time were talking and telephones.

Few studies find curfews effective. One exception, a widely cited analysis by Patrick Kline, aUniversity of California, Berkeley, economist, found small reductions in crime among younger teens. Unfortunately, this study only included cities that implemented curfews and failed to account for national trends showing much larger crime declines among younger teens than among those older teens subject to curfews, including in cities without curfews.

For example, both property and violent crime rates fell steeply in the 1990s and 2000s among youths in San Francisco, which didn't have a curfew. A "systematic review of empirical research on juvenile curfews" in city after city by Kenneth Adams, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor, found "the evidence does not support the argument that curfews prevent crime and victimization." Likewise, a study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that during the 1990s and 2000s, juvenile crime and crime in general fell faster in California cities that didn't enforce youth curfews than in those that did….

FBI reports show many more adults in their 40s are involved in murders and serious assaults than people under age 18. In 2009, more than 200,000 Americans in their 40s were arrested for drunken driving, surely a serious, deadly public crime. Yet, even though adults commit many more crimes than do youths, no one is proposing mass restrictions on their movements.

Until public officials and news media stop indulging in tones of panic and anger toward young people, and adopt the same objective standards of analysis we demand for adult behavior and trends, we will continue to see intrusive, ineffective cure-alls such as youth curfews. As strange as it sounds in today's climate, what cities need is more, not fewer, kids on the street.

The whole op/ed is well worth reading.