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Explainer: Do Youth Curfews Actually Cut Crime Rates?

Scott Lucas | September 24, 2013 | Story Politics

Yesterday, the Chronicle reported that Oakland City Council Member Noel Gallo plans to introduce a deeply controversial proposal for a youth curfew in the city, which would prohibit minors without adult supervision from being in public areas between 10 PM and 5 AM. He contends that the measure, which the Oakland City Council considered and rejected in 2011, would help to reduce the city's high crime rate. The initiative would ban youth from streets, parks, public spaces, cars, and businesses, and would also restrict them to school grounds between the hours of 8:30 AM and 1:30 PM, with some exceptions. "I am not doing a curfew to lock everybody up,” Gallo told the Chron, “but if I am going to be able to help children and young people, I need to get them off the street.”

But the big question is, do youth crime curfews actually work? In cities that have implemented them, does the amount of crime—and victimization of youth—diminish? The answer, according to several studies, is no. Social scientists who have investigated the impact tend to agree that youth curfews have at best a small impact of crime. Most studies have found no effect.

Though one study of cities and counties across the US found that youth curfews were associated with small drops in burglary, larceny, and simple assault arrests, most investigations found no link. A study of Prince George County’s youth curfew (which is almost identical to the Oakland proposal) found “little support for the hypothesis that the curfew reduced violent victimization of youth.” After Washington DC put in place a youth curfew, emergency medical service transportation for youth remained the same. A study of data from California cities indicated, “The current available data provides no basis to the belief that curfew laws are an effective way for communities to prevent youth crime and keep young people safe.” Even the Justice Department’s Statistical Briefing Book argues that “efforts to reduce juvenile crime after school would appear to have greater potential to decrease a community’s violent crime rate than do juvenile curfews.”

In addition to concerns about the effectiveness of these polices, questions have been raised about their ethical desirability. Some researchers have argued that they constitute a human rights violation or are outbreaks of moral panic, like worrying about razor blades in apples. Others have called it a component of “new authoritarianism.” Racial concerns are raised. Jargon like “contingent urban neoliberalism” gets thrown around too.

So what would work? Well, youth crime is highest from 2 to 4 PM on school days, according to the Department of Justice. (The youth crime rate drops down from around 11 PM to 7 AM on school days—which is more or less the time of the ban). But the same ethical concerns remain no matter what time a ban goes into effect. Not to mention, as Phil Matier does, the concerns about program implementation.

Nobody really thinks that 12-year-olds should be wandering around International Boulevard at 3 AM. But as a crime-fighting strategy, youth curfews don't seem to have much support from the data.

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