Every time you turn on the news, it seems, you hear about young "super-predators" terrorizing the streets of our otherwise friendly neighborhoods. It is understandable, then, that some Americans feel moved to support extreme measures like putting every juvenile under house arrest and having police hunt down those who refuse to be confined to their parents' homes.
While age-based curfew laws appeal emotionally to voters, we must ask the question, Are they good policy? Do curfew laws actually make our society better or worse?
To examine this proposed solution, we must first understand the problem. Are young people the main perpetrators of crime? Voters seem to think so. A Gallop poll conducted in 1994 asked people to estimate the percentage of America's violent crime that is committed by juveniles. The average guess was 43% (1). And one-fourth of all respondents believed juveniles commit more than half of all the violent crime in America (2). The real number, however, was a mere 13% (3). By 1998, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics released information that the youth crime rate was the lowest it had been since they started keeping track decades ago (4).
The real crime problem, in fact, is adults. For every violent or sexual crime committed by a juvenile, there are three such crimes committed by adults against juveniles (5). The California Department of Justice reports that 83% of murdered children, 50% of murdered teenagers, and 85% of murdered adults are killed by murderers older than 20 (6).
Unfortunately, we adults do not like to take responsibility for our behavior as a group. We seem to find it more comforting to point a finger of blame at another group. The media follow this instinct by focusing on the violence of youth and turning a blind eye to the violence of adults. A recent example surfaced locally when a student at nearby DeAnza College was found to be thinking about shooting people at his school and was arrested. The radio station to which I listen, NPR affiliate KQED-FM, spent a week talking about the violence that “almost” happened. More recently, a San Jose school bus driver actually shot several people and killed one. I haven't heard KQED-FM mention this actual shooting even once. Even the San Jose Mercury News has shown little interest in the San Jose story. They gave it front page attention for a few days, but by the time Sunday rolled around (the day when newspapers sell the best), the Mercury's front page story was “How Teens Get Guns,” even though no San Jose teens that week had shot anyone (7). As was said by Vincent Schiraldi of the Washington D.C. think tank The Justice Policy Institute, “The good news is, America's kids are acting more responsibly, and committing fewer crimes than they have in three decades. The bad news is, this good news does not seem to be making it onto the front page, or into public consciousness”(8).
Even if youth commit fewer crimes than adults, some will argue, shouldn't we try to keep youths from committing any crime? And isn't a curfew law a good way to accomplish this?
Of course we should use all reasonable methods to deter all crime; but is this curfew law reasonable? If it is, why not apply it to all age groups and cut down on all crime rather than just that fraction of crime that is committed by youth? Adults, of course, would never subject ourselves to such a law. We would never tolerate millions of innocent adults being held permanently under house arrest just because a few adults act badly. Since we are not willing to submit to such restriction ourselves, we have no moral standing to impose it on others.
Beyond the moral problem, these curfews have a practical problem: they don't work. An extensive study by the Justice Policy Institute found that imposing curfew laws does not lower juvenile crime rates by one iota (9). San Jose and San Francisco make an interesting contrast. In the early 90’s, San Jose adopted a curfew law while at the same time, San Francisco stopped enforcing its curfew law. The results: even when the crime of violating the curfew is taken out of the equation, San Francisco's juvenile crime rate went down (as did most of America's in this time period) while San Jose's juvenile crime rate rose (10).
Psychologists tell us a person is more likely to become a criminal if he can first picture himself as a criminal (11). When a boy who has done nothing worse than walk down a sidewalk is grabbed by police and hauled to a detention center in the back seat of a cruiser, it becomes easier for him to see himself as a criminal. This is why Justice Barbara Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court questions “this idea that you can fight juvenile crime by making juveniles criminals”(12).
When these facts are pointed out, proponents of curfew laws often switch their argument, insisting the purpose of these laws is not to stop youth from committing crimes, but to protect youth from being victims of crime. This, too, is a failure of curfew laws. In July 2000, the nonpartisan Urban Institute completed a study for the U.S. Justice Department. Their study found that when cities adopted curfew laws, there was no drop in the number of juveniles victimized by crime during curfew hours or during non-curfew hours (13). Unfortunately, this study did not include the "crime" (as I see it) of harassing and arresting people who have hurt no one.
Even more unfortunately, crimes committed against juveniles in their own homes (such as battery and rape at the hands of parents or other relatives) usually do not show up in these statistics, though logic tells us if more children are spending more time in their homes for fear of police, the number of crimes committed against children in their homes would increase.
Young crime-victims are less likely to report crime to the police when they view police as their enemies. This is one guaranteed result of curfew laws.
In some areas, juveniles convicted only of curfew violations are incarcerated for as long as six months (14). No one familiar with the juvenile corrections system could argue that incarceration makes young people safe.
Curfews do not protect young people. They make young people more vulnerable.
Curfews do not protect society from young criminals. They increase the number of young criminals.
The evidence is clear: enforcing curfews is a poor investment of our law-enforcement resources.