What City Leaders Should Know About Curfews for Minors

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Do curfew laws really protect city youth and increase public safety? This is the first of two blog posts on curfew within a broader series on opportunities for municipal leadership in juvenile justice reform.

(Getty Images)
Curfew laws aimed at curbing youth crime and victimization often have unintended consequences – such as unintentionally criminalizing city youth and worsening outcomes for kids. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Sana Johnson.

In order to respond to requests for information from cities engaged in Juvenile Justice Reform, NLC sought to increase our knowledge about curfews for minors. Not only do curfew laws yield a number of serious unintended consequences, but their effectiveness as a tool for protecting general public safety – especially the safety of young people – remains unconfirmed by research.

Nighttime curfews aimed at curbing youth crime and victimization tend to last from midnight until early morning, while daytime curfews intended to reduce truancy operate in accordance with school hours. Authority over curfews usually lies at the local level, but state legislatures occasionally write laws that empower cities to enact curfews if they so choose. Due to the absence of information on curfews, juvenile justice experts cannot definitively describe the degree to which curfew arrests result from municipal ordinances versus state or county laws. However, leaders in the field can identify the harmful consequences of curfews laws, which include disproportionate minority contact, the criminalization of homeless and runaway youth, worsening outcomes for kids, and exposing cities to lawsuits.

Disproportionate Minority Contact

Cities concerned about racial and ethnic disparities in their arrest rates – a key measure of disproportionate minority contact – should review the demographic data in enforcement of their curfew law. Disproportionate minority contact refers to the overrepresentation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. In 2011, the likelihood of police arresting black youth for violating curfew outweighed that of white youth by 269 percent. In 2014, black youth made up around 15 percent of the under 18 population, yet represented almost 50 percent of the curfew arrests in cities across the country. Crime and population data show that no other racial group experienced such a great disparity in curfew arrests that year.

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The Criminalization of Homeless and Runaway Youth

Rather than address the underlying circumstances that contribute to youth homelessness, the enforcement of curfew laws creates another opportunity for homeless and runaway youth to enter the juvenile court systems and detention facilities. Each year, around 1.6 million young people experience homelessness. With no place to go at night, homeless and runaway youth often encounter the juvenile justice system through curfew and loitering violations.

Worsening Outcomes for Kids

Police arrest more youth for curfew and loitering violations than all four categories of violent crimes combined, such as murder, manslaughter and robbery. By authorizing police officers to arrest young people, thus increasing youth involvement in the juvenile justice system, curfew laws may worsen outcomes for kids. Recent research finds that juvenile justice systems that respond punitively to youth delinquency actually produce worse results in terms of public safety and youth development. Also, youth placed in locked facilities for curfew violation and other offenses are more likely to engage in future delinquent behavior.


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Lawsuits Challenging Constitutionality of Statutes

Curfew laws make cities vulnerable to lawsuits for unconstitutionality. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) play an active role in suing cities for their curfews, typically arguing that curfews violate young people’s First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. For example, in 2001 a superior court judge struck down the curfew ordinance of West Orange, New Jersey, for unconstitutional ambigity. Decisions in these cases do not provide clear guidance on what makes a curfew law constitutional, making it difficult for cities to draft responsible curfew laws.

Curfew violation belongs to the group of crimes referred to as status offenses – non-criminal behavior prohibited by law due to a young person’s age. Although federal law prohibits detention for youth charged with status offenses, each year thousands of kids end up in detention facilities by way of juvenile courts. The Vera Institute for Justice’s report, From Courts to Communities, urges that status offenses should never result in juvenile court involvement, especially since status offenses pose no immediate risk to public safety and often result from unmet needs of the youth and family. Leadership by local officials can build opportunities to hold youth accountable and avoid the consequences of detention.

The absence of a comprehensive study on curfew effectiveness makes it difficult for lawmakers to form definitive opinion on the value of curfews, but local leaders working to improve safety and outcomes for their young people can still take action against harmful curfew laws. The second and final blog post in this series outlines steps city leaders can take to improve their curfews for minors.

Cities interested in reconsidering their curfews can contact Laura Furr at furr@nlc.org.

sana_headshotAbout the Author: Sana Johnson is the 2015-2016 National League of Cities Menino Fellow in the partnership between Boston University’s Initiative on Cities and NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.