The Economist – Lights Out: Crime Prevention

Print Edition
September 16, 1999 | Washington, D.C.

MENTION youth and crime in America these days, and people think of massacres like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado four months ago. The reaction is understandable. Predictably, parents have been pushing for tighter gun-control laws. On September 11th, President Bill Clinton announced $100m in community grants aimed at reducing violence among young people. Many schools have even been conducting “lock-down” drills to prepare children for armed assaults.

More controversially, towns across America have also been passing curfews to get their children off the streets at night. Last month, Cicero, a town near Chicago, passed a law aimed at gang members that would allow police to seize the cars of teenagers out too late. And just last week the most recent curfew came into force in Washington, DC. There, children aged 16 and younger have to be home by 11pm on weekdays, and by midnight at the weekends, though it does admit exceptions such as work and church activities (and also, curiously, lets children off if they cite their first-amendment rights). If parents are found negligent, they can be fined or punished themselves.

Washington’s crackdown is part of a broader national trend to tuck children into bed and out of harm’s way. Some 300 towns and cities now have some sort of curfew for minors, and the Justice Department has expressed its approval. Curfews sound tough, win votes and please anxious adults. But do they work?

economist1999Vincent Schiraldi of the Centre on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), a non-profit group in Washington, points out an irony that suggests otherwise. The crime that children are most often arrested for in America, he notes, is curfew violation. In 1996, police reported some 140,000 cases of juvenile curfew arrests, more than double the figure in 1994. That amounts to more than the total arrests for all juvenile violent crimes put together. If such measures really did reduce crime, that might be an acceptable price to pay. But curfews are problematic.

For a start, some critics argue that curfews violate the constitutional rights of young Americans. There are precedents, of course, for forbidding minors to do some things that adults may do freely: it makes sense to stop them smoking and discourage them from drinking. But should they also be forbidden to go out for the late movie? The law is murky on this point, as the constitutional rights of minors are not clearly defined. Washington, DC has tried several times over the past decade to push through a curfew, only to find it thwarted by legal challenges. But an appeals court recently supported the city, and so the curfew is back.

A stronger objection raised to curfews is that they may result in racial bias. Police in several states, most recently New Jersey, have been caught out using a practice known as race profiling, which targets minority groups — typically for traffic offences. Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union insists that however good the intentions of the Washington curfew, the actual enforcement will inevitably single out poor, mostly minority, children in inner cities, “who usually don’t have swimming pools or air conditioning to go home to. Evidence from Los Angeles and New Orleans suggests that police arrest blacks far more often than whites for curfew violations.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against curfews is that there is no evidence they work. Many boasts have been made by policemen and mayors, says Jeffrey Butts of the Urban Institute, a think-tank, but most of their curfews have merely been riding the wave of declining crime rates across America. He insists that there is no substantive research that shows a link between curfews and reduced crime. Indeed, the most comprehensive study on the subject suggests the opposite. Mike Males and Dan Macallair, the authors of that study by the CJCJ, looked at a variety of curfews enforced throughout California from 1978 to 1996. They found that counties that had strict curfews did not see a decrease in youth crime greater than those counties without such curfews. These findings held true for all sorts of crimes.

Why, then, has juvenile crime been declining along with overall crime rates since the mid-1990s? Social-policy experts are divided. Some argue that government efforts, such as job-training and mentoring schemes, nudge errant teenagers back on the straight and narrow. Others think that the answer lies in the same sorts of measures, like community policing, that have been effective in bringing down adult crime. Still others argue that the biggest force driving down delinquency among young people could be the country’s remarkable economic boom: with jobs aplenty, crime is less attractive.

Perhaps it should not be so surprising that curfews have little impact on crime rates. After all, most juvenile crimes have long been committed between 3pm and 8pm– the hours after school ends and before many parents come home. The main point of curfews, it seems, is to make adults feel better.

Copyright 1999 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group