Youth curfews are widely used in the USA to keep children off the street at night; a state of curfew makes it illegal to be out of doors between certain publicised times. In the USA over 300 individual towns have passed local curfew laws that vary in detail, but are all aimed at reducing juvenile crime and gang activity.
The exceptions permitted vary between states and between cities but are generally: Minors accompanied by a parent or guardian, Minors travelling to or from work, Minors attending official school or religious events, Minors running errands under an adult's instruction, Emergencies.
Punishment for juvenile curfew law violations also varies among jurisdictions, but can often include one or more of the following options: Fines (usually increasing for subsequent violations), Imposition of community service or required enrolment in after-school programs, Restriction of driver's license privileges or Possible detention in jail or juvenile hall. 1
In Britain a 1998 law allowed local councils to impose curfews for all children under ten, although none has yet chosen to do so. Many of the issues raised by curfews laws in the USA are applicable to the debates surrounding ASBOs and Grounding laws that have been used by the British government at various times.
1. LAPD, http://www.lapdonline.org/juvenile_division/content_basic_view/2011
Youth crime is a major and growing problem, often involving both drugs and violence. Particularly worrying is the rise of youth gangs who can terrorise urban areas and create a social climate in which criminality becomes a norm. Imposing youth curfews can help to solve these problems, as they keep young people off the street, and therefore out of trouble, and prevent them from congregating in the hours of darkness. Police in Philadelphia have found curfews effective in the prevention of gang violence: ‘the measure has been successful in helping to curb violent attacks by teen mobs that had severely injured several people in recent months, city officials said.’ 1
Curfews are largely ineffective in preventing crime. Curfews do not target the right times of day as most juvenile crime appears to take place between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., after the end of school and before working parents return home, rather than in the hours covered by curfews. There are many reports providing evidence that juvenile curfews do not have a significant effect upon crime figures.
In addition, although society does have a problem with youth behaviour, although it is not as bad as the newspapers make out. What is often labelled anti-social behaviour today was considered normal for kids in the past – things like playing football in the street, going around in groups without an adult in charge, making a bit of noise sometimes, etc. We need to be careful to draw a line between things that some people don’t like, and actual crime.1
The use of child curfews can help to protect vulnerable children. Although responsible parents do not let young children out in the streets after dark, not all parents are responsible and inevitably their children suffer, both from crime and in accidents, and are likely to fall into bad habits. Sir Ian Blair former chief commissioner of the Metropolitan police argued that curfews were aimed at safeguarding youngsters and stopping gangs causing trouble.1 Society should ensure that such neglected children are returned home safely and that their parents are made to face up to their responsibilities.2
2. Ward, 2000,
Although protecting children domestic abuse is of vital importance curfews are not the most appropriate way of doing so. Problems at home may be the reason the young person spends so much time out on the streets in the first place. If that is the case, it could be dangerous to force them to stay where they may be at risk of abuse. Also, curfews infringe upon the rights of parents to bring up their children as they choose. Simply because we dislike the way some parents treat their children should not mean that we intervene to stop it; should we intervene in families where conservative religious beliefs are preached? 1
Very few children are going to be out late at night without an adult or very good reason. This helps make curfews enforceable as the police will be patrolling anyway, and any responsible adult can report children who are out after curfew. The curfew could therefore be for all young people, defined as those under the age of 18, beginning at 10pm on both weeknights and weekends and ending at sunrise, with the exceptions like those noted in the introduction. Curfew violations are punishable by fines and penalty assessments. In Los Angeles these total $675, and violations may also result in community service and driver's license restrictions. The amount can vary with Philadelphia only having a $250 fine. 1
Curfews are not enforceable even if they are well known by residents and anyone can report those breaking curfew. It simply means that young people are trying to avoid the police so that they do not get fined. The police are only ever likely to catch a small number of those who are violating the curfew resulting in there being little deterrence.
Other schemes aimed at reducing youth crime are highly effective but work best in conjunction with curfews. As the National Crime Prevention Council states: ‘A curfew alone won’t stop crime. More preventive measures, including recreational activities and job opportunities, are needed to reach out to young people and keep them from committing crimes.’ 1 In areas with a whole culture of lawlessness a curfew takes the basically law-abiding majority off the streets, allowing the police to engage with the most difficult element. Curfews are a tool in the struggle to improve lives in run-down areas; they often used for relatively short periods of a few weeks or months in order to bring a situation under control so that other measures can be put in place and given a chance to work.
A number of alternative strategies exist which are likely to do more to reduce youth crime. For example, rather than a blanket curfew covering all young people, individual curfews could be imposed upon particular trouble-makers, perhaps involving electronic tagging, breaking up gangs without labelling an entire age-group as criminal. A Scottish scheme puts plenty of police officers on the streets at night with a brief to engage with young people, deterring crime while steering them towards a range of youth activities available at clubs set up by the local council.
There is no good reason for children to be out unaccompanied late at night, so a curfew is not really a restriction upon their liberty. Where the child does have good reasons to be out they can be covered by the exceptions. They would be better off at home doing schoolwork, schools often set more than an hour a night which the children should be doing. The time would also be better spent interacting with the rest of their family.
Children in their mid-teens have many legitimate reasons to be out at night without adults. Many will have part-time jobs, for example in fast-food restaurants or delivering newspapers. Others will wish to participate in activities such as church groups, youth clubs or school trip. Whilst there are clauses for allowing such activity, the fear of not being believed would be a serious chilling effect on uptake. Requiring adults always to take them to and from such activities is unreasonable and will ensure that many never take place in the first place, either because adults are unwilling, or are unable to do so.1
Curfews are not an effective solution to the problem of youth crime; research in the USA suggests that there is no link between areas that achieved a reduction in juvenile crime and areas with youth curfews. Paul McKeever, Chairman of the Police Federation in England and Wales points out that curfews are an unrealistic scheme: ‘It is fantasy to believe the police could impose an immediate sanction for somebody to stay in their home for four weeks without any kind of due process.’ 1Although some places did see a reduction in youth crime, this often had more to do with other strategies, such as zero-tolerance policing.
Curfews are easy to police compared to other forms of crime prevention, and are therefore effective. Child curfews can help to the police to establish a climate of zero tolerance and to create a safer community for everyone.
Youth curfews infringe upon individual rights and liberties. Children have a right to freedom of movement and assembly which curfews directly undermine, by criminalising their simple presence in a public space. They are also subject to blanket discrimination on the grounds of age and the underlying assumption that all young people are potential law-breakers. It has been established in US law in the 1976 case of Missouri v Danforth that everyone has full constitutional rights regardless of age. Thus, curfews violate the fifth amendment which guarantees a right to free movement and due process. Comparable legal principles exist in most liberal states, and there is no reason to treat children as having less substantive rights to free movement. 1
Youth curfews have great potential for abuse, raising civil rights issues. Evidence from U.S. cities suggests that police arrest far more black children than white for curfew violations. Curfews will tend to be imposed upon poor areas in inner cities with few places for children to amuse themselves safely and within the law, compounding social exclusion with physical exclusion from public spaces. These problems will also be made worse by the inevitable deterioration in relations between the police and the young people subject to the curfew.
1. Vissing, Y. (2011). Curfews. In: Chambliss, W., eds. Juvenile Crime and Justice. London, SAGE publications, Ch. 5. P.62
Curfews do not harmfully restrict childrens’ rights to participation in activities and actually supports their right to a safe home and neighbourhood environment: ‘The curfew law has several exceptions. Youths can be out after hours if they are with a parent or guardian or doing errands at a parent or guardian's direction. They also can be at work or attending an official school, religious or recreational activity.’ 1If family breakdown means parents lose control, and in cases where parents can’t be bothered, then the police should step in. If the state has the right to take children away from cruel parents to protect them, then it also has the right to protect everyone else from dangerous youths. Most importantly, we can trust the police not to abuse this power. Our police are sworn to uphold the law and protect people, and trained to respect everyone’s rights.
Imposing child curfews would actually be counter-productive, as it would increase juvenile offending by turning millions of generally law-abiding young people into criminals. The Executive director of D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates argues that ‘"This tells young people they're the problem, not part of the solution".’ 1Already in the USA, more children are charged with curfew offences than with any other crime. Yet once children acquire a criminal record they cross a psychological boundary, making it much more likely that they will perceive themselves as criminal and have much less respect for the law in general, leading to more serious forms of offending. At the same time a criminal record harms their opportunities in employment and so increases the social deprivation and desperation which breed crime.
Child curfews are an important form of zero tolerance policing, showing that a community will not allow an atmosphere of lawlessness to develop. Paul McKeever, Chairman of the Police Federation in England and Wales, argues that: ‘“It would send out the message that we are serious that the criminal justice system has the power to impose immediate sanctions for bad behaviour and that “no” will mean “no”. At the moment no is negotiable.1”The idea of zero tolerance comes from the theory that if low-level crimes, like graffiti-spraying, window breaking and drug-dealing (all common juvenile offences) are not acted against swiftly and effectively by the police, then a permissive atmosphere is created where violence and other serious crimes flourish and law and order breaks down entirely.
Other successful schemes aim to work individually with young troublemakers, in order to cut their reoffending rate, for example by requiring them to meet with victims of crime so that they understand the consequences of their actions, and by pairing them with trained mentors. Overall, governments need to ensure good educational opportunities and employment prospects in order to bring optimism to communities where youngsters feel that their futures are pretty hopeless.
Rather than trying to scare kids into good behaviour, why don’t we offer them a better life? Most areas with anti-social behaviour problems are poor, with bad schools, few jobs and little for kids to do with themselves. With little hope for the future, no wonder some kids go off the rails. So instead of threatening punishment, we should invest in better schools, places for kids to play and socialise, and the chance of a job.1
Child curfews can help to change a negative youth culture in which challenging the law is seen as desirable and gang membership an aspiration. Impressionable youngsters would be kept away from gang activity on the streets at night and a cycle of admiration and recruitment would be broken ‘in the hope that we can stop them from getting so far into trouble that they end up in the criminal justice system.1’ By spending more time with their families and in more positive activities, such as sports and youth clubs, which curfews make a more attractive option for bored youngsters, greater self-esteem and discipline can be developed.
Budd, Jordan. "Juvenile Curfews: The Rights of Minors Versus the Rhetoric of Public Safety" Human Rights, v. 26/22 (1999)
Chen, Gregory. "Youth Curfews and the Trilogy of Parent, Child and State Relations". New York University Law Review. v.72/131 (April 1997)
Crowell, Anthony. "Minor Restrictions: The Challenge of Juvenile Curfews." Public Management, v.78 (1996)
Sutphen, Richard D. and Janet Ford. "The Effectiveness and Enforcement of a Teen Curfew Law." Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, v.28 (2001).
Vissing, Y. (2011). Curfews. In: Chambliss, W., eds. Juvenile Crime and Justice. London, SAGE publications, Ch. 5.