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Youth Curfews Feed Kids into the Criminal System. But Cities Keep Expanding Them.

by Tara Francis Chan

In 1996, President Bill Clinton flew to Monrovia, California, to highlight the city’s daytime youth curfew aimed at curbing truancy. The curfew, along with a new uniform rule, “may wind up being the most important anticrime initiatives you’ll ever adopt,” Clinton said during a speech at a local high school. “Other communities have got to do this.”

Local governments took Clinton’s advice. Youth curfews proliferated in the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s. By 2009, 84 percent of cities with more than 180,000 residents had youth curfews. Proponents said the restrictions prevented kids from committing crimes and protected children from becoming victims.

But, despite nationwide protests against police violence in 2020, these heavy-handed curfews persist. Currently, there are more than 400 states, counties, cities, and towns “where it is illegal for young people to be outside of their homes at certain times of the day,” according to the National Youth Rights Association. The United States is one of the only countries to use youth curfews so widely. Just this year, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Chicago all made existing summer curfews begin hours earlier. Prince George’s County, Maryland, also instituted a brand new curfew, with the county executive saying, “these kids don’t just need a hug, they also need to be held accountable.”

The problem is, youth curfews don’t work. Not even in Monrovia, where police later admitted crime reduction findings were due to state-wide trends and other factors, including data entry errors. Instead, the restrictions harm children and damage communities. Across the country, young people who violate curfews can be punished with hundreds of dollars in fines or criminal charges, or removal to child protective services if police deem it necessary. Once children are picked up by police, they can be taken home, to police stations, or to community centers, but may still be searched and handcuffed. Restrictions vary by town.

At least 11,650 youth were arrested in 2019 for curfew violations or loitering, according to FBI data. Nearly thirty percent of those children were Black.

“At best, curfews are an ineffective band-aid; at worst, they criminalize our most vulnerable and at-risk children,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said in a press release in September 2022 in response to Prince George’s County’s curfew. “Youth who are not safe in their home, or lack a stable home, will be subject to police and court involvement regardless of whether they are involved in any delinquent or criminal activity. Curfews serve as an entry into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

A 2016 review of 12 studies by the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit research network, found curfews are “ineffective at reducing crime and victimization”—and that there were even slight increases in crime during curfew hours. In a 2018 study, researchers found that in Washington, D.C., gun violence increased in some instances, possibly because busier streets may be a greater deterrent for crime. Curfews likely decreased public safety at the time, taking up time police officers could be using to investigate serious crimes.

But data doesn’t seem to matter. In June 2022, when Canton, Ohio, made its youth curfew begin earlier, the police chief told The Repository he didn’t care about efficacy studies, because their curfew “is not designed as a primary strategy to reduce violence.” The goal, he said, was to “measure” parents’ and guardians’ level of supervision—effectively criminalizing families for different styles of parenting and life circumstances.

A 2012 report by multiple civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Southern California, found that daytime curfews in Los Angeles—which make it illegal for children to be outside school or home during school hours, with very few exceptions—were, as the report was titled, “Counterproductive and wasteful.” The ACLU noted that if children missed school, they needed to take additional days off to attend court dates if they were arrested. Additionally, LA’s curfew didn’t reduce crime but did disproportionately impact Black and Latinx youth—a common pattern.

In Cleveland Heights, Ohio, 93 percent of the 187 children who received civil penalties for curfew violations between 2011 and 2021 were Black. In Dallas, 88 percent of tickets in 2017 and 2018 were issued to Black and Latinx youth, though those groups only made up two-thirds of the city’s population.

Curfews not only limit kids’ rights to free assembly and movement but criminalize activities like truancy or just coming home late for many reasons. Under these curfews, teenagers have been arrested for visiting family members, working, or seeing a movie.. While some towns have exceptions for important activities, some are not exhaustive. Rarer still are exceptions for children protecting themselves by escaping violent situations at home. And there is often virtually no age limit on whom police can arrest: kids as young as 4 years old have been cited in Minneapolis, according to the ACLU.

In 2012, one student told the ACLU of Southern California that she was ticketed three times, once for running late to school and a second time after attending a track and field event. “After two tickets, I felt very distrustful at police,” she said. She said she received her third ticket after dropping her niece at daycare.

Advocates for kids at risk of committing or becoming victims of violence say that therapeutic or community programs would be far more useful.

“The children who are involved in violence need evidence-based responses that account for their brain development, behavioral health needs, extreme poverty, and other concerns,” Dartigue, the Maryland public defender, said in her September media release.

Waco and Austin, Texas, ended their curfews within the last decade. Neither has experienced increases in crimes committed by youth.

A flyer the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Santa Clarita Valley Station sent to residents a decade ago encapsulates the faulty logic of youth curfews.

“This curfew ordinance is necessary in order to protect [kids] from becoming victims of crime or from becoming involved in crimes late at night,” the department said.

But, in the next sentence, the flyer stated that in 2009, 472 children were arrested for violating the city’s curfew, in many cases for simply “loitering around public areas[.]”

To protect kids from getting arrested, the police had been arresting them.


In the news


Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg sent a letter to the New York State Supreme Court saying that his office cannot proceed with the prosecution of Tracy McCarter, a nurse and survivor of domestic violence who was charged with murdering her estranged husband. Community activists have rallied for years to demand that the office drop the charges against McCarter. [Victoria Law / The Nation]

Bragg also announced that his office would vacate 188 misdemeanor convictions connected to police officers convicted of crimes related to their jobs. [Verónica Del Valle / Gothamist]

After she discovered her baby wasn’t breathing, Jessica Logan sobbed and screamed on the call with a 911 operator. Using lessons he’d learned in a class called, “911 homicide: Is the caller the killer?,” an Illinois detective decided that she had killed her baby. [Brett Murphy / ProPublica]

When students returned to school in Uvalde, Texas, “state troopers were visible everywhere,” writes Bekah McNeel. “There’s a lot of police presence now,” one student said. “They said that they weren’t there when it happened, but I don’t know. I just don’t like it.” In May, a teenager opened fire inside an Uvalde elementary school. As the victims lay dying, police stood outside and in the school’s hallways, and did nothing. [Bekah McNeel / The Trace and The Guardian]

Missouri plans to execute Kevin Johnson on Nov. 29. His 19-year-old daughter, Corionsa “Khorry” Ramey, is petitioning a federal court to allow her to attend his execution. State law forbids anyone under the age of 21 to attend executions. Johnson, now 37, is on death row for a crime that occurred when he was 19. [Jack Suntrup / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

On Sept. 13, a guard at the Fulton County Jail in Georgia found a man dead in a mental health unit. He was covered in lice and feces. A report by the Fulton County Jail’s medical provider would reveal shocking neglect: more than 90 percent of detainees in the unit were so malnourished that they developed a wasting syndrome often associated with advanced-stage cancer.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate now and your donation will be tripled here.

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