There’s an old saying that nothing good happens after midnight. Which perhaps explains why cities across the US and the world are attempting to enact curfews for the long, hot summer ahead.
The rationale for keeping kids off the streets is crime and violence prevention. The Baltimore city council is pushing a bill to have youths under the age of 14 home or inside by 9 pm. Teenagers from the ages of 14–16 can stay out to 10 pm on school nights and 11pm on all other nights.
The penalty for the parents of the law-breakers would be a $500 fine. The fine could be waived if both the parents and children attend counseling sessions provided by the city. There are exceptions to the rules as well: youths accompanied by their parents, travelling to or from work, attending a religious event, or interacting in a school or recreational activity are allowed out.
It seems reasonable on its face. But history has shown that good intentions don’t necessarily result in the desired reductions in crime.
Certain Rights Guaranteed
The word curfew comes from the French, and means “cover the fire,” a reference to putting out the lights and going to bed. The original meaning allegedly harkens back to William the Conqueror, who made a law that stated all lights and fires should be put out when the clock tolled eight. Seems like they went to bed a might early back in those days.
US curfew laws are usually enacted by cities. The Constitution guarantees certain rights, so any state's curfew law may be overruled if it violates someone’s 1st, 4th, 5th, or 14th Amendment rights (or the parent's 9th Amendment right to privacy in parenting).
Curfews and the military go well together. The crisis atmosphere of potential attack from an enemy usually brings soldiers and civilians together in a mutual goal. Of course, in dictatorial situations, it also keeps a population from getting together and planning to topple the dictator. See Egypt: Hosni Mubarak, the floundering boss of that country, declared a nationwide, military-enforced curfew. It was ignored, and Hosni was soon hot-footing it out of office.
Today’s curfews have a different purpose than dousing the fires. They are largely meant to keep teenagers off the streets, and away from trouble during presumed high-crime hours. By reducing the number of youths on the street during certain hours, curfews are intended to reduce the risk factors for violence and crime — low traffic, alcohol imbibing, boredom after hangouts close.
The belief that they work is widespread. Just Google “curfews” and you’ll see a long, long, long list of cities, towns, municipalities, and other jurisdictions that have attempted to enforce them. Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Cleveland — the list goes on and on.
There’s just one thing wrong with the theory. Someone with a bent toward crime could not care less that they’re supposed to be off the streets at a certain hour, and law enforcement typically has more pressing matters than chasing fast and wiry teens.
The US penchant for curfews seems to have erupted in the 1990s, when no less than President Bill Clinton came out in favor of them. In the same period, a survey by the US Conference of Mayors saw an overwhelming majority of cities considered such laws worthwhile.
A 1999 study by California, and a year 2000 study of New Orleans curfew laws sponsored by the US Justice Department, found them ineffective because they failed to target older teens and young adults, ie the people who were perpetrating most of the crime. The local Times-Picayune newspaper later pointed out that most of the crimes committed by minors happened after school, not in the evening hours.
But a 2011 UC Berkeley study looked at over 50 large US cities that enacted youth curfews between 1985 and 2002. It discovered that youth arrests dropped 15% in the first year and 10% in following years. So there is some measure of success on the books.
One thing is for sure: with inner-city violence levels ratcheting up in the summer months, keeping young people off the streets removes some potential targets from harm’s way. That’s at least one good thing that can happen after midnight.