Curfews and Crime

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As head of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Dan Macallair has repeatedly given city officials scientific data that juvenile curfews don’t reduce youth crime. That evidence includes a study he co-authored, which appears to be the most comprehensive research ever done on the subject.

But Macallair can’t compete with Lerrel Marshmon. Last year, Marshmon appeared before the town council of Knightdale, N.C., urging it to impose a curfew. The minutes of the meeting summarize his evidence:
“Lerrel Marshmon, 308 Laurens Way, Knightdale, stated that he gets off work at 10:00 p.m. and frequently the gang members come onto his property. He stated that the kids verbalized swear words to his wife. Mr. Marshmon stated that he came outside to ask the kids to leave his property and they threatened him and his family. He explained that he thinks the problem is very serious.”

Macallair says that when he gives officials his evidence about curfews, he usually gets “no response.” After Marshmon and others spoke in Knightdale, the town instituted a curfew, and this summer decided not to change it.

Knightdale is among numerous communities that have recently turned to curfews to crack down on an alleged rise in juvenile crime. San Francisco, Houston, Washington, Oklahoma City, New Haven, Conn., Kinston, N.C., and the New York communities of Rochester, Oswego, Fulton, East Syracuse and Wyoming County – those are just some of the places that have created, expanded, restored or considered curfews over the past several months.

This despite the fact that research shows little or no evidence that curfews work. And the rise in juvenile crime? In many if not most of the towns, there’s no data to support the claim.

While it’s routine to bemoan the gap between research and practice in youth work, perhaps nowhere is that gap wider than between the popularity of youth curfews and the research about their effectiveness.

“What’s most astounding,” Macallair says about the research, “is that it’s one of those areas where there doesn’t seem to be any relationship whatsoever to policy analysis.”

Indeed, a survey released this year by the National League of Cities shows that among more than 200 cities with curfews, officials in 96 percent consider them “very” or “somewhat” effective. The headline on the league’s news release: “Youth Curfews Continue to Show Promise.”

The league called curfews “a growing trend.”

If curfews are demonstrably ineffective, are all those mayors, county supervisors and police chiefs ignorant, deceitful or out of their minds?

The bugaboo of the youth field about lack of research dissemination is one culprit. Officials considering curfews typically don’t know about the work of Macallair and others.

But it probably wouldn’t matter. While advocates who oppose curfews think their data make for a slam-dunk case, policymakers aren’t impressed; they have other factors on their minds.

Data Don’t Matter

“Whereas, the town council has determined that there has been an increase in juvenile violence, juvenile gang activity and crime by persons under the age of 18 … ”

So begins the ordinance that created the curfew in Knightdale. But ask Police Chief Ricky Pope for data to back up the statement, and he says he probably has none. “It really wasn’t because juvenile crime was up,” he says of the curfew.

The answers are similar around the country. While officials justify curfews with claims about increases in youth crime, few can provide statistics to show it.

The city of Oswego, N.Y., is considering a youth curfew, but the main curfew proponent hasn’t asked the police department for juvenile crime numbers. “If they have it, we don’t get it,” says Councilwoman Barbara Donahue.

Oklahoma City expanded the hours of its youth curfew in August for its popular nightlife section, Bricktown, after business owners said youth crime and gang activity were rising there. City police say they have no juvenile crime statistics for Bricktown.

In Kinston, N.C. – which instituted a trial curfew in June and made it permanent in September – Councilman Van Broxton voted for the measure, but says, “I don’t know that we had a lot of criminal data.”

Even when data are provided, the conclusions are debatable:

* Police statistics from Rochester, N.Y., show juvenile arrests virtually unchanged from 2004 to 2005 (1,526 vs. 1,523). Arrests increased during the first five months of this year, then dropped sharply for three months – the three months immediately preceding the city’s new curfew.

When the curfew began on Sept. 5, the number of juvenile arrests for the first eight months of the year was down by 6 percent from the same period last year. (After the curfew, however, the arrests fell even faster.)

* In San Francisco, the mayor announced in September that the city would begin enforcing its long-ignored curfew for anyone under 14, in response to an increase in overall violent crime.

City statistics show that juvenile arrest rates declined significantly over the past decade but rose slightly from 2004 to 2005. They also show that youth under 14 make up a small percentage of those detained in the city’s juvenile hall – 8.4 percent last year, and 6.4 percent through August of this year.

* Perhaps the strong statistics came from Washington, which extended the hours of its curfew this summer in response to what it called a crime emergency. Among other things, police cited an 82 percent increase in juvenile robberies.

Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, sat before the city council and demonstrated the futility of fighting curfews with data. He argued that the city’s crime increase was driven by adult crime. He argued that the juvenile robbery totals were so small (rising from 70 to 134) that large jumps in percentages were misleading. While police said the curfew reduced juvenile arrests by 46 percent, Ziedenberg countered with an analysis which said that over 23 days, the new curfew rules reduced arrests from 15 to 13.

When he was done, “there wasn’t a single word from any counselor about my testimony,” Ziedenberg recalls. He even asked one of them if he had any questions, “and there was no comment.”

Impressions Drive Policy

The evidence that has driven policymakers to impose curfews this year is primarily not about data; it’s impressionistic.

“It really wasn’t because juvenile crime was up,” the Knightdale police chief says of the curfew there. “Our problem was we were having groups of people, juveniles, hanging out in different locations and pretty much harassing the public as they walk down the sidewalk.” There also seemed to be more graffiti.

The story is similar in Oswego, where some of the concerns clearly involve youth, while others involve youth by implication.

Residents have been complaining about “young people … demanding money, using obscenities, throwing eggs at cars,” Councilwoman Donahue says. “They’re out here at 11 o’clock right to three or four o’clock in the morning. I’ve seen them myself.”

She says there’s been more vandalism, including to a Little League concession stand and a city pool. She adds that town officials have been hearing more from “homeowners with their cars being broken into. Cars keyed, rifled through.” She says it happened to her daughter-in-law.

How does she know the culprits are kids? “You can tell just by the loose change,” Donahue says, noting that the perpetrators seem more intent on being a nuisance than on finding valuables. “I don’t think an adult would take and throw stuff all over the place. … An adult would probably just take what they need and leave.”

In some towns, a few serious, high-profile crimes are behind the curfews. Rochester imposed its curfew in September because of what the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle called “a spate of violence involving youths last year that has continued this year.” The city reported that seven youths (ages 12 to 17) were killed in 2005; the curfew idea gained momentum after a 15-year-old was shot to death outside a recreation center last fall.

In New Haven, Conn., a flurry of violence this summer – including the shooting deaths of three teens – has officials considering a curfew. A city alderwoman also cited kids on bicycles stirring up trouble in her neighborhood.

To be sure, arrest data are not a perfect reflection of criminal activity in a community; vandals routinely get away. And some of the quality-of-life issues that residents complain about, such as being shouted at by teens, often don’t lend themselves to arrests.

The curfews show how a community’s belief about crime – based on what residents see and talk about among themselves, and what the news media and government officials report – speak louder than spreadsheets.

The Spreadsheets

There are few studies about the impact of curfews, and their findings are uniform. In 2003, the Urban Institute released two studies of curfews in Prince George’s County, Md., which borders Washington. They found “little support for the hypothesis that the curfew reduced arrests and calls for service during the curfew hours,” and “little support for the hypothesis that the curfew reduced violent victimization of youth within the curfew age.” The studies were funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prince George’s County still has a youth curfew.

The largest curfew study looked at California, including jurisdictions with and without curfews. Conducted by the Justice Policy Institute with funding from the California Wellness Foundation, the study looked at youth arrest and crime rates from 1978 through 1996, and was published in 1998.

The main finding: “No evidence that curfews reduce the rate of juvenile crime.” Counties with strict curfews saw no decrease in crime compared with counties without strict curfews. Macallair compiled the study with researcher Mike Males (who is also a Youth Today columnist).

So what?

In Oswego, Councilwoman Donahue says no one has talked about finding studies about the impacts of curfews, although a curfew committee might do that.

Asked if Knightdale looked at studies about the effects of curfews elsewhere, Police Chief Pope says, “No.”

And they don’t much care. People in towns with curfews are comfortable judging their effectiveness not by data from other states, but by observations made by themselves and people they trust.

In Kinston, N.C., the public safety chief talked with officials from other towns with curfews, who said the curfews were working, Councilman Broxton says. One such town is Knightdale, where Councilman Jeff Eddins says, “What I would have someone look at is the number of complaints that we no longer get. The number of streets you can now drive down and not have people harassing or cursing you.”

That approach explains why Ziedenberg of the Justice Policy Institute says that when he gives government officials evidence that curfews don’t work, “the reaction varies from stony silence to dismissal.”

An Attractive Option

It’s easy to see why local government officials like curfews.

“I’ve been on the council for six years, and there’s never been an issue that brought as many people out as this issue,” says Eddins in Knightdale. “From a political standpoint, it was an easy decision to make. You’ve got a majority of your citizens saying, ‘Take action now. We want this fixed.’ ”

In Rochester, a local TV station (WROC) asked residents in September, “Are you in favor of Rochester’s youth curfew?” Eighty-eight percent said “yes.”

If it were up to you, would you go against such public wishes, and stake your case on what Macallair says happened in California a decade ago?

Macallair understands why curfews seem reasonable to most people. “From a gut level, you want to have police be able to arrest kids who are out on the street after hours,” he says. “If you’ve got kids, that makes lots of sense.”

It helps that police usually support the proposals. In some communities, however – such as Oswego and New Haven – police have objected to diverting their resources to chase kids home. “Police officers have enough to do right now besides baby-sit for other people’s children,” the president of the New Haven police union told the Providence Journal. He added that a curfew would “create more hostility between our cops and the kids.”

Feeling an Impact

In Knightdale, there are no data to say juvenile crime has gone down since the curfew. But Chief Pope says the measure has been a success, based on “nothing other that the citizens saying it’s made a big difference: ‘I don’t feel intimidated anymore walking down the sidewalk.’ ”

“The result has been great,” says Eddins, the councilman. “You had groups of youth gathering in the middle of the street, on sidewalks. They were cursing, making threatening gestures to families. …

“With the curfew, that’s been eradicated. People can actually walk up and down the streets. The kids can play in the front yards.”

So while studies might see no change in crime statistics, residents weigh quality-of-life issues that don’t show up in the statistics. “Every time I talk to [community leaders], they tell me the same stuff: Thanks for the curfew. Their neighborhoods feel safer,” Eddins says.

When it comes to curfew decisions, data are no match for feeling safe.

Resources

Dan Macallair, Executive Director
Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
San Francisco, Calif.
(415) 621-5661, www.cjcj.org

Justice Policy Institute
Washington, DC
(202) 558-7974, www.justicepolicy.org

“The Impact of Juvenile Curfew Laws in California”
Available at www.cjcj.org; search for “curfew.”
“Evaluation of the Youth Curfew in Prince George’s County, Maryland”
Available at www.ncjrs.gov; search for title.