It’s a summer ritual in many American cities—declaring a juvenile curfew to keep troublemaking teenagers off the streets. This summer at least one city—Austin—has decided not to sound the alarm.
“We looked at the evidence and decided it was time to discard the curfew law,” the Austin Police Department’s assistant chief, Troy Gay, told The Marshall Project. “It wasn’t making an impact on juvenile victimization.” The evidence was a report drafted by a consortium of community groups that banded together to challenge Austin’s curfew law in 2017. Police Chief Brian Manley was persuaded and asked the City Council to rescind the law.
Juvenile curfew laws are ubiquitous and deeply entrenched. By 2009, 84% of cities with populations greater than 180,000 had enacted curfew laws. They remain an alarmist staple in communities across the country.
A voluminous body of research has cast strong doubts on the claims that juvenile curfew laws prevent victimization or reduce juvenile crime, but these findings have received scant attention from policymakers or police.
A systematic review of research literature on juvenile curfew programs was published in 2016 by the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit that synthesizes research studies for policy-makers. Campbell examined over 7,000 studies on juvenile curfews and synthesized the 12 most rigorous studies.
As the report stated, “evidence suggests that juvenile curfews are ineffective at reducing crime and victimization. The average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive — that is a slight increase in crime — and close to zero for crime during all hours. Similarly, juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance.”
Why are juvenile curfew laws ineffective? The studies found that they damage already-strained relationships between police and youth of color and in some instances have “blowback” effects, increasing juvenile victimization or overall crime.
Another factor is that on empty streets there are no witnesses. Urban activist Jane Jacobs theorized that well-populated streets are safe streets; deserted streets invite crime.
A study published in 2015 tested the effect of Washington D.C.’s juvenile curfew on gun violence. Using ShotSpotter audio sensor data, the authors found that gunfire incidents were significantly more frequent when the curfew was in effect.
Many argue that continuing curfew laws in the name of juvenile crime reduction is draconian, in light of actual crime data showing juvenile crime rates are at all-time lows.
Dr. Mike Males, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Research told TMP that crime rates are lower for juveniles than for adults in their 40s or 50s.
The use of juvenile curfew laws soared in the mid-1990s at the urging of the Clinton administration. The “tough-on-juvenile crime” stance was a product of Princeton Professor John DiIulio’s “super-predator” theory; in 1995, he warned that unless decisive action was taken, the next 10 years may “unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals.”
The result was an abrupt shift in laws, encouraging prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults and urging municipalities to enforce curfews.
It turned out the super-predator theory was terribly wrong. Juvenile crime in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s soared, fueled by the crack epidemic and, perhaps, the effects of lead poisoning on inner-city children, but then dropped precipitously. DiIulio’s army of “homicidal juveniles” never materialized.
Juvenile justice advocates and community groups have been working tirelessly to reverse “tough-on-juveniles” policies created in response to the prophesized super-predators. They have made some headway in reducing juvenile incarceration rates, with DiIulio himself signing an amicus brief in 2012, petitioning to end life sentences for juveniles.
The same can’t be said for curfew laws.
Males contends that police and politicians continue using curfew laws because “juveniles are a politically powerless population, so they are an easy group to target and blame for any crime concerns in an area.”
Since the rescission of Austin’s juvenile crime law, juvenile victimization has decreased by 12 percent, officials say. Though it may be too soon to draw conclusions, Gay says Austin’s “youth aren’t hiding from the police anymore, in places they weren’t supposed to be. Now they can be in a public place and not fear the police, and maybe that makes everyone safer.”
Ivonne Roman, a captain in the Newark (N.J.) Police Department and board member of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing wrote this article while working as a journalism intern at The Marshall Project.