Illustration by Ethan Buller
Illustration by Ethan Buller

In the wake of flash-mob riots in several cities, fears of gang violence and age-old anxiety about kids on the streets, authorities in Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities are adopting or beefing up curfews that ban youths from being in public during school hours and at night.

Juvenile curfews are unique to the U.S. No other country, including those in Latin America and Asia or even the U.K. during recent riots in London, invokes such measures except during national emergencies -- and then they apply to all ages.

Although America’s best measure of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey, finds violence by juveniles has plummeted to a record low and Federal Bureau of Investigation reports also show youth arrests for violent crimes at a nadir, officials and news outlets seem eager to postulate a crisis. For example, news reports have depicted murders of school-aged youths in Chicago as an alarming new trend even though coroners’ records show today’s urban youths, including Chicago’s, are safer from homicide than at any time in at least 40 years.

Similarly, the notion that mass curfews and crackdowns have become necessary because of violence enabled by social media is dubious. In reality, only the term “flash mob” is new. The 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles began within 20 minutes of its instigating incident as a few onlookers quickly grew to a mob of hundreds, then thousands. “Youth in Danger,” a 1956 report by congressional investigators, cited numerous mob incidents, including ones in Philadelphia identical to those now labeled as flash mobs. The social media of the time were talking and telephones.

Rare Exception

Few studies find curfews effective. One exception, a widely cited analysis by Patrick Kline, a University of California, Berkeley, economist, found small reductions in crime among younger teens. Unfortunately, this study only included cities that implemented curfews and failed to account for national trends showing much larger crime declines among younger teens than among those older teens subject to curfews, including in cities without curfews.

For example, both property and violent crime rates fell steeply in the 1990s and 2000s among youths in San Francisco, which didn’t have a curfew. A “systematic review of empirical research on juvenile curfews” in city after city by Kenneth Adams, an Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor, found “the evidence does not support the argument that curfews prevent crime and victimization.” Likewise, a study by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that during the 1990s and 2000s, juvenile crime and crime in general fell faster in California cities that didn’t enforce youth curfews than in those that did.

Popular Prejudice

In any case, curfew advocates seem both unaware of -- and indifferent to -- research. A feature article in the trade journal “Youth Today” found curfew support was largely based on impressions, anecdotes and gut feelings (uniformly negative ones) toward youth.

Popular prejudices against teenagers notwithstanding, juvenile curfews may actually increase danger and the opportunities for crime by occupying police with removing law-abiding youths from public areas. This clashes with observations by William Whyte, Jane Jacobs and other urban scholars that well-used public spaces present fewer opportunities for crime.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice analysis, published in “Criminal Justice Policy Review,” of police notations on hundreds of curfew citations found that more than 99 percent of the youths cited or arrested weren’t in danger or suspected of any criminal activity or intent. They were playing basketball in the park, heading home from movies or work, emerging from restaurants, talking with friends. Similarly, police records in Monrovia, California, showed that crime fell considerably faster during non-curfew hours, when juveniles were allowed in public, than during times when youths were banished.

Invisible in Crowds

Of course, thousands of law-abiding teenagers in public are far less noticeable than a few dozen in a flash mob, a reality that should be evident to police, political authorities and press commentators. Still, we see claims that ridding the streets of all young people brings some kind of benefit. For example, in a recent debate on National Public Radio, Montgomery County, Maryland, executive Ike Leggett advocated a curfew because of worries that his jurisdiction has become “a haven for young people,” a group he described only in terms of “challenges” to law enforcement.

But don’t adults present even bigger challenges? FBI reports show many more adults in their 40s are involved in murders and serious assaults than people under age 18. In 2009, more than 200,000 Americans in their 40s were arrested for drunken driving, surely a serious, deadly public crime. Yet, even though adults commit many more crimes than do youths, no one is proposing mass restrictions on their movements.

Until public officials and news media stop indulging in tones of panic and anger toward young people, and adopt the same objective standards of analysis we demand for adult behavior and trends, we will continue to see intrusive, ineffective cure-alls such as youth curfews. As strange as it sounds in today’s climate, what cities need is more, not fewer, kids on the street.

(Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, is the author of “Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Mike Males at mmales@earthlink.net

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net