Millions of teenagers have been arrested in their communities since the 1990s because they broke curfew laws. The Guardian took a look at this issue in 2016 by following Officer Troy Owens during his patrol in San Diego.
Owens peers through the darkness of the California night, scanning the streets for anything that looks suspicious. Then he spots something at an intersection. He wonders if someone is hiding from him, and the swings the SUV around that he’s driving and turns on his lights. Three teens then come out from behind an electrical box. All three are searched and handcuffed.
Their crime was being outside late at night. They weren’t doing drugs, drinking, or trying to hurt anyone. In the city of San Diego, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to be outside past 10 pm in those circumstances.
Youth curfews in the United States date back to the late 19th century. Even then, adults in America’s growing cities were becoming concerned about the idea that there will millions of teens outside without supervision. Laws that mandated school attendance and banned child labor were going to improve lives and protect the social order. President Benjamin Harrison even called them the “most important municipal regulation” for the protection of kids in homes from street vices. There were 3,000 curfew laws in place by 1900.
Are these rules working? Is crime lower because it is illegal for teens to be outside at night past a certain time? The advantages and disadvantages of teenage curfew may hold a few surprises for you to consider.
List of the Advantages of Teenage Curfew
1. It can be a way to give families access to the services they require.
Curfew violators in San Diego and other cities are often given the option to enter a diversion program instead of dealing with the fines that come with being out late. When they complete the program, then their charges are dropped. When kids come to the classes, then law enforcement officials can connect them to vocational training, community activities, and social services that can help to make their lives easier.
Free classes are held in many cities and offer a variety of experiences. Some have juvenile judges talk about the court system, while others bring in correctional officers to talk about what it means to be in the youth version of jail.
2. Most curfew laws allow teens to be outside after the permitted time for specific reasons.
Some teenage curfew laws have a zero-tolerance rule, so the teen can be arrested even if they are at a school event or in the company of their parents. Most communities allow for specific exemptions that let teens stay outside later than what would normally be permitted. If a parent or guardian is with them, then no police contact is usually necessary. Teens who have a job outside of their home at night can go to and from work. School events and religious activities are usually exempt with verification.
There are usually ways for teens to work around the structure of curfew so that they can live the life you want. It takes some effort at times, but most families don’t need to worry about these laws at all.
3. It reduces the threat of human trafficking and child exploitation.
A child goes missing in the United States every 40 seconds. Although most of the 460,000 missing kids are eventually brought home safely, about 1,500 kidnappings are part of that data. Out of those incidents, about 1 in 5 of them involve an adult taking a child who is not part of their family. Predators often come out at night, and their primary targets are girls between the ages of 12-17. Boys are becoming more of a target for human traffickers as well. Curfew laws aren’t just about making sure that teens don’t get into trouble, even when they are marketed as such.
Having a teenage curfew also takes kids away from the people who would attempt to exploit or hurt them for personal gain.
4. Teenage curfew can teach lessons about personal responsibility.
Teens are finding their way in today’s world. A curfew, either from their parents or their community, is a way to reach personal responsibility through time management. If you know that you must be home by a specific time, then you must create plans that make that outcome possible. If you fail to find success in this area, then there are legitimate consequences to reinforce the idea of being responsible.
Parents can take this opportunity to talk about what will work and what doesn’t for their family. It helps kids to begin making choices for themselves. By giving them the opportunity to make these decisions with a safe environment and supportive structures, teens can learn how to make better choices for the rest of their lives.
5. Curfews can provide peace of mind for families.
The consistent enforcement of teenage curfew laws can help parents or guardians to know that their child will be home safe by a specific time. If they are not, then there are options available to make that happen in the near future. This advantage lessens the risk of having something happen when it is least expected, especially since most teens have a feeling that they are invincible in some way.
A teenage curfew also reduces the number of situations that may lead to drinking, drug use, and other choices that teens might regret one day. It is easier to give in to pressure when you are tired, and it is late at night.
6. It is an opportunity for parents and teens to set healthy boundaries.
All of us set limits in our lives in multiple ways. By curbing the time that a teen can be outside late at night, the teenage curfew laws help put boundaries in place for parents and teens that help to keep everyone safer. Communities and families can work together to reinforce the barriers that parents set in the home while fostering the independent spirit of teenagers as they work to discover who they are as a person.
This advantage only works when there is actual parental involvement in the teen’s life, but mentors can also help teens to see the possible benefits that occur when one decides to follow the rules.
7. Curfew laws can work to prevent gang violence.
Residents in the cities and counties across the United States look at curfew laws as a way to keep kids safe. The evening is the time that gangs typically choose to commit violent acts under cover of darkness. Some groups even visit adjoining communities that do not have curfew laws to fight their rivals, often resulting in intensified destruction and mortality. When local governments impose teenage curfews, the goal is to defend the innocent and round up the guilty.
List of the Disadvantages of Teenage Curfew
1. It provides parents and teens with a false sense of security.
The usual promise of a curfew for teens is that it will get them home during the evening so that they can stay healthy and safe. There is a false premise that suggests most of the criminal activity of juveniles occurs during the overnight hours. The most likely time for incidents to occur is after school and before dinner, which is a time that curfews don’t help. This approach cannot be a general answer to all possible problems.
Teens that want to participate in negative activities can do so at school, from home, and at any other time during the day. If communities rely on this structure to keep people safe, then it represents a lack of familiarity with the limits that families need today.
2. Most curfews are set from an autocratic standpoint.
Some parents and communities set the rules of a teenage curfew without any input from those that the rules effect. When you hand down rules like this in such a fashion, then it removes the opportunity to bring developing negotiation skills. It helps to speak with kids, parents, and community members to understand their desires and needs while still providing a certain level of structure for everyone.
If we fail to listen to opposing viewpoints, then the message presented to teens is that their point of view is unimportant. When that outcome occurs, then there is a reduction in the levels of respect experienced in the family environment. It also creates a communication barrier that can be challenging to overcome.
3. Some teenage curfew rules can encourage rebellion.
Teens that receive a curfew will usually see that structure as something of a consequence. If they do not feel that they’ve done anything to warrant such an approach, then there is an excellent chance a family will see anger and rebellion develop. Teens need a chance to offer input or opinions to prevent unexpressed destructive emotions from forming. It often stops the development of maturity because it communicates a lack of trust. There is no way to develop independence or responsibility if parents or the community expect someone to be home-bound by a specific time.
4. There can be legal consequences for violating curfews.
Several municipalities across the United States have instituted ordinances that govern teens and curfews. Families that live in these communities must ensure that their kids are abiding by the rules. Even if you do not agree with the principles behind the laws, failing to follow them can result in fines – or even jail time in some situations. That’s why some groups, including the National Youth Rights Association, assert that the idea of teenage curfew laws is unconstitutional because it restricts the rights of a specific demographic.
5. It impacts minority teens more than any other demographic.
No other country in the world uses the same approach to implementing a teenage curfew as the United States does. It has become a way to respond to the problems of society that blames young people for all of the problems that happen without affecting the adults in the conversation. A case study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that in Minneapolis, 56% of the curfew charges brought by police were for African-American youth. Caucasian teens were responsible for only 17% of the incidents.
Hispanic youth see the same problem in San Diego. Even though police reject the idea that they racially profile teens as part of the curfew law, 59% of arrests in 2010 impacted the minority population compared to 16% for Caucasian teens.
6. Teenage curfew laws create unnecessary conflicts with today’s youth and police.
When Owens’ commanding officer in 2016 began the shift that would lead to curfew patrols, his advice was simple: “Happy hunting.” During the first 13 minutes after the curfew was instituted that night, there were four teens under arrest. Another six would be picked up throughout the evening, and that is the average number for each night. The record in San Diego for the southeast division is 50 encounters.
Police officers say that these contacts are not failures. It is a reflection of them doing their job. The reality of this disadvantage is that it creates what are often needless encounters with teens. It places them and the officer at a higher risk of a violent encounter over the idea that someone is away from home too late at night.
7. The data to support the idea of curfews is lacking.
Monrovia, CA became one of the first cities to claim success with the institution of a teenage curfew. President Bill Clinton even flew out to the city in 1996 to celebrate the idea at their local high school. This action took place during the era when the idea of “super predators” was taking root in American society, so there was a desire to remove any possible attempt to commit a crime. This approach seemed to be a meaningful answer, so it spread like wildfire. The only problem is that there is limited data to support the approach, so most of the opinions about it tend to come from an emotional place.
8. Neighborhoods without curfew sweeps often see less crime.
Proponents of teenage curfew might suggest that the reason why neighborhoods that don’t receive sweeps have less crime because it goes unreported. There is research that suggests that places in San Diego and others that don’t see regular enforcement of curfew laws have larger drops in criminal activity from 2011-2016 than those who had them regularly. When you combine truancy laws with a curfew, most kids can only be outside for a few hours each day. That means the underlying assumption is that most kids are criminals when the opposite is really the reality.
9. Teenage curfew does not set an example of how the real world works.
When a community decides to impose a teenage curfew on every person of a specific age, then the leadership assumes that every teen is a potential troublemaker. It also implies that these kids don’t have an awareness of how to care for themselves. The real world does have laws that demand compliance, but adults rarely find themselves restricted by a curfew situation. Only emergencies restrict movements in most circumstances.
When teens must begin making their own decisions in life without the protection of curfew rules, the duties asked of them may cause confusion, misunderstandings, or worse.
10. There are other interventions that reduce youth crime more effectively than curfews.
The Clinton Administration signed a measure in 1996 that allotted $75 million toward communities so that they could institute new curfew laws. Many communities have found that using recreation centers, investing in youth sports, and creating meaningful vocational opportunities does more to take back the streets from criminals than issuing a specific time-based deadline that everyone must follow. Even having better parental involvement is better than a police-enforced curfew.
The benefits of parental involvement are numerous. Teens with actively engaged parents have higher grades, better test scores, and higher homework completion rates. They stay in school better, and there are improvements to their social behaviors and skills. Something as simple as setting a goal with a teen and then helping them to achieve it can help to reduce the need for a curfew. One could argue that the presence of these laws is more of an indication that parents don’t want to be involved.
There are always exceptions to every rule. Some communities do see a lot of success with their curfew laws because the structure of them works to resolve specific issues that occur. Most of the time, these laws are not working for equally specific reasons.
The Campbell Collaboration examined over 7,000 studies on teenage curfews. They also synthesized a dozen of the most rigorous studies. Their report states that the evidence suggests that the laws are ineffective at reducing crime. The average effect on crime was slightly positive, which means there were more incidents in communities with laws than those without. Empty streets are also an invitation for criminal conduct.
What are some realistic expectations for a teenage curfew? Parents must sit down with their children to decide what their specific supervision needs are. If both parties decide that a curfew is necessary, then clear expectations can be set at this time. Communities have the right to enforce their own rules too, but it always comes back to the levels of adult involvement in a child’s life.
Baltimore has one of the strictest teenage curfew laws in the country. Children under the age of 13 must be inside starting at 9 pm each night. Teens between the ages of 14-16 have an 11 pm curfew. If a child is picked up by law enforcement, then city workers visit the house to offer support services.
That’s why we must continually evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of teenage curfew. The panic of the 1990s doesn’t make people safer. The police department in Austin, TX decided that it was time to get rid of the laws because it wasn’t making a positive impact on juvenile victimization.
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send Natalie a message here.