Youth Curfews Cut Crime

Tim Burke
May 1, 1996

Curfews – dontcha just love 'em? All the good kids tucked up in bed by 11 pm, and the police given powers to take the bad kids off the street and keep them, and the rest of us, safe. Youth crime dealt with at a stroke.

Curfews - dontcha just hate 'em? Constitutional rights violated. An easy way for vote-seeking politicians to hang tough on crime while avoiding the real issues. Cops given carte blanche to indulge their prejudices and shake down teens they don't like the look of.

Either way you can't ignore 'em. The survey conducted last year by the U.S. Conference of Mayors indicated that 70.2 percent of cities currently have a youth curfew in place, with a further six percent actively considering one. Nearly half of the curfews are less than three years old or were recently modified, usually to become more restrictive.

The first documented curfews in the United States were in the 1890s at a time of mass immigration and were used to contain alien cultures. Up to 3,000 towns and cities had them by the end of the century, although there is no record of how effective they were. A second wave started in the '40s when concerns were over youth left unsupervised by parents at war or in the factories, and continued into the '50s when the panic was over teenage rebels without a cause. The implementation of curfews has clearly ebbed and flowed but recent work by William Rufall of the University of South Alabama, the major historian of youth curfews, confirms we are now at high tide owing to massive concern over youth violence. His figures show 80 percent of major cities now with curfews.

"The major difference is that in the past you weren't worried about young people shooting each other," says Rufall.

Most curfews apply to those 17 and under and run from 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. until sunrise, with maybe an extra hour on weekends. There are often exemptions for those on legitimate school or other business – though the police may not know this until they have stopped, questioned and possibly, put the fear of God into a young person.

The Conference survey came about because mayors were keen to know if curfews were worth the inevitable controversy their enactment generates.

According to John Pionke, the Conference researcher behind the survey, the short answer is that they can look pretty appealing. "A lot of cities showed a drastic decline in juvenile crimes - we're talking maybe 30 to 50 percent in one year," he told YOUTH TODAY. "Whether that can be maintained remains to be seen." William Rufall said that figures from the police and mayors' departments were politically motivated and could not be accepted. "No one will really know how effective curfews are until criminal justice researchers have had a chance to examine them," he added. Rufall himself now has a federal grant to investigate the New Orleans curfew and looks to publish a report next year.

Some 14 percent of those surveyed said their curfews had not been effective at all. The obvious next step was to examine the results and investigate what worked and why.

"The curfews that worked best were those where there was substantial parental involvement rather than just hauling the kids into courts which are already in a mess," Pionke continued.

"Experience shows that if you try and use the courts you are not addressing the problem and you just get in a revolving door situation where they get sent out to do it again."

Pionke says the program operating in Charleston. S.C., was impressive in this respect. "Operation Midnight," insist the South Carolinians, is not a curfew but a voluntary "partnership between police and parents" that does not impinge on constitutional rights. The police send out forms to parents to register their children aged 17 and under, giving permission to the police to apprehend them and return them home. When the police encounter young people who are not registered they may still take them home and offer parents the chance to sign up. "Nine out of ten times it will be a single mother who is struggling with other problems and has neither the time nor energy to keep close tabs on older children, but she's likely to be grateful for help of that type," added Pionke.

The sanctions get tougher in the small number of cases where the above procedure doesn't deliver. Repeat offences trigger mandatory counseling for parents and the young person. The police have also made it clear they will not tolerate parents allowing young children to be out alone at night.

One recurring issue with even the most successful curfew can be described as the tube of toothpaste effect – you press down on the problem and it pops up somewhere else. So cities like Charleston try to team up with neighboring suburban areas to get a similar regime going until there really is nowhere else on the streets for the late-night roamers to go.

The more archaic of the detention centers for curfew violators are like old-fashioned lock-ups, but some are youth club-type environments with some basketball, table tennis and reading material. Pionke praises programs such as Denver's Safenite, which provides recreational facilities and an on-site youth worker for teens and their families, with follow-up support and advice also available.

But suspicions linger in many minds over the motivation behind curfews and whether they can really make a sustained difference. Curfews have the benefit to police forces and mayors of being a visible piece of work – it looks like something is being done. It has certainly paid political dividends in Charleston where accolades have poured in for mayor Joseph Riley. The publicity leaflet for the Denver scheme has the name of mayor Wellington E. Webb prominently displayed on the front, with two more mentions inside. Happily for the politicians, young people subject to the curfew are of course too young to vote.

The more astutely marketed schemes also stress the youth-as-victims angle. "They don't want to come across too heavy-handed," said John Pionke. "It's much better if they can say "we're saving your kids'."

Birmingham, Ala., introduced a night time curfew as recently as March 4th of this year, against the better judgment of police chief Johnnie Johnson. "I'm not too fond of it, but there was a lot of political pressure for it and sometimes the police just have to submit to the community," he told YOUTH TODAY.

"I was expecting a deluge of kids, but in fact 90 percent of the kids we've picked up have been during the day-time," Chief Johnson echoes John Pionke's observations that most parents are in favor of curfews and see it as a help to them. But the civil liberties lobby may be concerned by his admission that while the curfew is for 17-year-olds and under, it gives his officers the ability to stop and question anyone who looks around that age.

It seems that community policing-minded beat officers have mixed feelings about curfews, and see the "help to parents" angle as double-edged sword.

In one way a curfew can help compensate for the decline in basic respect for police. "The days when a cop walked down the road and everyone went 'whoa, we'd better behave’ have long gone," said Rich Roberts, public information officer of the AFL-CIO affiliated International Union of Police Associations. Curfews give the police a power to do something with young people who may be a nuisance or putting themselves at risk but are not actually breaking other laws.

But the downside is that curfews can make the position of the law enforcer less tenable, he continues. Police have no desire to sweep up for parents who decline to take responsibility for protecting their children, nor to be the foot soldiers of a politician's campaign.

"Too many curfews are badly written," said Roberts. "Too many people seem to want a curfew but don't think how. They give inadequate instruction and they make inadequate ordinances.

"The wrong kind of curfew runs counter to the idea of community policing," he continued. "It creates a hostility between police and young people that does not serve a good purpose. It's a delicate balance that requires a lot more thought than the average policymaker puts into it."

What almost everyone concerned with youth crime or young people's safety agrees on, regardless of their position on curfews, is that more facilities for youth can help.

"If a community makes a commitment to provide reasonable facilities for young people, with constructive activities, in a way that's not excessively structured, the trouble makers get chilled out and there's a lot less pressure on the kids to get caught up in trouble," said Rich Roberts. “The more preventive measures you can make, the better it is for law enforcers."

Those most opposed to curfews have based their arguments on the fact that curfews seem to be a substitute for proper youth service provision (see sidebar this page).

But John Pionke agrees they are most effective when consistently applied and delivered as part of a wider program.

"San Diego has one of the lowest crime rates in the country," said Pionke. "It has lots of late night programs, a well-enforced curfew, and other measures such as a strong anti-graffiti policy with cultural programs offering alternatives to leaving your tag everywhere."

"You have to be consistent," he continues. "There's no point in clamping down one week and leaving off the next — its a joke. Kids are smart, they know what's going on."

William Rufall’s research in New Orleans has confirmed this. In the first few months, 100 officers were out on curfew detail. Within four months there were none and it was just left to regular patrols to implement as they saw fit. Rufall found the youth knew exactly what was going on and adapted behavior accordingly. Intriguingly 88 percent of these African American teens approved of the curfew - that is, they approved for those younger than themselves.

"It's about applying pressure," concluded John Pionke. "Every police officer agreed it was just a tool, it's not expected to take care of everybody, it's not the be all and end all. Salt Lake City, for example has a late night basketball program running at 2 a.m. They recognize that some young people have parents who just don't care and so that kind of thing is needed. They are trying to cover all the bases but it is not going to work for everyone – there will be those who fall through the cracks."

No Martial Law for San Francisco

The San Diego, curfew, one of the most stringent in the country, survived a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union on April 17 this year. Clinton-appointee Judge Marilyn Huff eventually ruled the restrictions to be "reasonable and justified under the circumstances."

The ACLU will appeal but there are others opposed to the concept of curfew who have already tasted victory. A coalition of young people, youth workers and others came together in San Francisco last year and successfully rallied support to vote out a proposed curfew from then-Mayor Frank Jordan.

"We were very upset when it was introduced," said Eva Cutino, field organizer with Coleman Advocates in San Francisco. "The basic objection was criminalizing young people for just being there. Our point was there is a desperate lack of things to do for young people in San Francisco. It's not the most fun thing to do to be out on the streets, but there is nowhere else to go."

The coalition got up a petition, lobbied, held rallies and marches and generally got involved in outreach and political education. "We said the curfew was a kind of martial law," said Cutino "A year before you're supposed to be an adult and you are able to vote and you are being kept off the streets!"

One of the young people who took an active role in the coalition was 16-year-old Raquel Moreno.

"I empowered myself – it was the beginning of my political consciousness," she declared. "I found out more and more about corruption through the different lies I saw coming from politicians and I found out that through the community coming together people can learn from each other."

It is the principle of being told what to do that angers Raquel. She gives short shrift to any notion that curfews can be defended because they are also about protecting people like her. "If they want to protect young people then the people they should be putting away those doing the crime. The streets are the only place some young people feel safe, where they feel comfortable.

"Ignorance breeds fear and older people don't understand youth so they're afraid of us. That's why they try to keep us apart. It's because they are capitalists," she adds helpfully.

But it's not just youthful rhetoric. Raquel is continuing to press for positive alternatives for the city's youth, and is involved in two projects to develop a roller skating facility and a community center for young people "We've set up business plans and now we're trying to present our plans to people with grants to make. I've found it a very empowering process."

Coalition member Robin Templeton is an experienced campaigner on youth issues and now works for Unplug, a group opposed to commercial television in schools. She felt they owed the victory to their positive approach. The campaign came up with four demands, a moratorium on policies that sought to criminalize young people, but also the redirection of resources for the curfew into programs of education, job creation and recreation centers. "People saw through the curfew as a scapegoating measure."

She was unimpressed by the conclusions of the U.S. Conference of Mayors survey.

"Okay so they found curfews to be effective when they involved parents, law enforcement officials and schools –well so will any policy that involves all these people. Why not develop community centers, why not open the schools later at night, why not open the churches, why not create more jobs for young people? It becomes ludicrous to discuss curfews without discussing the lack of other options for young people."

But she also has wider concerns that curfews are being applied in a discriminatory way. The survey shows a preponderance of the curfews in the West, and a relative scarcity in the Northeast.


"Curfews and Delinquent Youth in Major American Cities," Rufall, W. and Reynolds, K. in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 4 l, No.3, July 1995.

Int'l Union of Police Associations

Contact: Rich Roberts, Public Information Officer

1421 Prince Street, Suite 330

Alexandria, VA 22314-2805

(703) 549-7473; Fax: (703) 683-9048

Metropolitan Development Council

Contact: Barry McCabe, Project Coordinator

622 Tacoma Avenue South

Tacoma, WA 98402

(206) 591-0115

U.S. Conference of Mayors

Contact: John Pionke, Staff Assoc.

1620 Eye Street, NW

Washington DC, 20006.

(202) 293-7330; Fax: (202) 293-2352

Youth Uprising Coalition

Contact: Robin Templeton

2864 Folsom

San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 431-4210


Youth Curfews Cut Crime: Curfews—An Early Warning System?

Youth Curfews Cut Crime: If You Must Have a Youth Curfew

Burke, Tim. "Youth Curfews Cut Crime."Youth Today, May/June 1996, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.