Purpose or Portrayal: The Dangers of Youth Curfew Laws on Public Safety and Youth Delinquency

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Have youth curfew laws failed in their purpose? Arguments against youth curfew laws and recommendations for alternatives.

By Kaya-Nadine Edmondson-Deigh, CJJ Intern 

In 2022, a number of communities including Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Forth Worth, began taking measures to implement or expand upon youth curfew laws within their cities. These communities stated as their justification that these laws would help reduce youth crime and victimization.However, little to no evidence exists that supports that youth curfew laws have succeeded in this goal. 

Currently over 400 towns and cities across the United States have active youth curfew laws. Youth curfew laws allege to restrict the opportunities that youth have to engage in criminal behavior and/or become victims of crime. These laws are intended to provide law enforcement and parents with additional assistance in supervising young people. Youth curfew laws vary based upon state and municipality, but they usually restrain young people under the age of 18 from being outside, unsupervised, between the hours of 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM. In the state of Maryland, curfew begins at 10:00 PM during the week, but is extended to midnight on the weekends. A young person and their parents will receive a written warning from the Chief of Police, after they are caught violating the curfew for the first time. If the young person is caught violating the curfew for a second a time, they are brought into custody. In the District of Columbia, the curfew hours change during certain months.

Youth curfew laws became increasingly popular during the 1990s, as part of a wave of tough on crime legislation that targeted and criminalized children.Youth crime has drastically decreased since the 1990s and major cities across the United States have begun to repeal those very laws, as concern over their effectiveness begins to grow. In 2017, the Austin Police Department announced a repeal to their youth curfew laws, disclosing that the evidence concluded that there was no impact on reducing youth victimization.

There is evidence that these laws prevent adverse health outcomes, such as automobile injuries. However, there is little to no evidence that supports youth curfew laws reducing rates of youth crime and victimization. Prior research has failed to provide a clear conclusion on the effectiveness of youth curfew laws, but here is what they have concluded:

A 2015 study found that youth curfew laws that were enacted in Washington, D.C., in response to gun violence, increased gun violence in the city by 150% during the non-curfew hours. Research shows that youth crime and victimization are most likely to occur in the evenings after school. Youth curfew laws do not account for the crime and victimization that may occur during non-curfew hours. The Campbell Collaboration (2016) examined over 7000 studies on youth curfew laws and concluded that youth crime and victimization rarely occur during the hours of curfew. With less people on the streets during the hours of curfew, the more opportunities to engage in crime arise. As activist Jane Jacobs expressed, empty streets welcome criminal activity because there are no witnesses.

Law enforcement officers are not consistent in the ways in which they enforce youth curfew laws or upon whom they enforce them. There is this misconception that young people from specific racial or ethnic groups are more likely to violate these laws. The most obvious consequence of violating youth curfew laws is police intervention, which could eventually lead to arrest. African American youth are 19x more likely to be arrested for a curfew violation than Caucasian youth, further damaging the relationship between law enforcement and youth of color. Law enforcement officers have the tendency to judge not only a young person’s likelihood to engage in criminal behavior, but their chances of rehabilitation, based upon racial/ethnic stereotypes. This leads to the arrest of young people who are not engaging in any criminal activity.  Often, these youth are then denied their right to counsel and their parents/guardians are also subject to receive fines up to $1000.

Youth curfew laws are also based on the presumption that all youth have access to safe, secure places to live and have adequate guardians to supervise them. On average, over 1.6 million youth experience homelessness each year . These youths often have no place to go during the night, which makes them highly susceptible to being found guilty of violating curfew laws. Recently, the Public Safety/ Legal Administration Committee in Atlanta has passed a curfew exemption for homeless youth. Youth curfew laws fail to attend to the countless conditions that contribute to youth homelessness. Instead of providing homeless youth with the proper support and services that they need, they are criminalized for their status. 

Youth curfew laws are an example of youth being denied the same protections of due process as their adult counterparts.They impede on the first amendment rights of the youth and are therefore unconstitutional. In order to protect their rights, youth must provide documentation outline the details of why they need to be out after curfew. However, that documentation does not guarantee that the youth is exempt from the curfew. A few states have adopted a first amendment defense, but support of this defense has led to great conflict within the courts. Until the constitutionality of youth curfew laws has been examined, many more legal challenges will arise. 

Youth curfew laws create unintended consequences that do more harm than good for the youth. They create more opportunities for young people to become involved in the legal justice system. They are heavy on punishment, light on rehabilitation, and they rarely lead to the discovery of serious criminal behavior. Youth curfew laws should be considered as a “last resort” instead of a primary solution.

The ACLU of Maryland, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Youth Empowered Society and Advocates for Children and Youth created an alternative plan that proposed alternatives for youth curfew laws: 

  • There needs to be an increase of positive opportunities for young people to engage in non-delinquent behaviors
  • School-based prevention programs 
  • Community-based, after school programs, that are not only geared towards sports 
  • Young centers that provide social, educational, recreational, and counseling services

If youth curfew laws must be used, then they should be used in a contemporary way. They should be used in hot spots, that would require their use. They should be used as a tool to identify the youth who would benefit from more social service assistance. 

Simply put, youth curfew laws are a temporary fix to a very extensive issue, that is a desperate need of further research.