Juvenile Curfew Laws: A Consideration of Something that “Doesn’t Work”
David L. Myers, PhD
University of New Haven
Juvenile curfew laws are utilized widely and supported throughout the United States, under the common sense notion that restricting the hours when young people are out in public should limit their opportunities to commit crimes or become victims of crime (McDowall, 2000). Curfews typically are directed at youth under the age of 18 (although this age sometimes is lowered), and common hours of enforcement are between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am (although these hours vary based on jurisdiction, days of the week, and/or holidays). Survey research indicates that about three-quarters of American cities have juvenile curfew laws in place, and a large majority of mayors, police, and the general public support curfews and believe them to be effective for public protection (Bannister, Carter, & Schafer, 2001; Good, 2006; Ruefle & Reynolds, 1995, 1996). Interestingly, the United States and Iceland appear to be the only two countries with general juvenile curfew laws that apply to all youth of certain ages within a given jurisdiction (Wilson, Gill, Olaghere, & McClure, 2016).
Juvenile curfew laws seek to keep youth at home (or at least off the streets) during late evening and early morning hours, to prevent them from committing crime and becoming victims of crime. The potential for police intervention, fines, or other sanctions is expected to deter youth from being in public during curfew hours, and curfews are expected to assist both police and parents with managing and supervising youth at night. Unfortunately, prior research has questioned the effectiveness of juvenile curfews in achieving their goals (Wilson et al., 2016). Individual studies generally have failed to uncover significant beneficial effects from curfews on crime and victimization rates, and police enforcement of curfew laws appears uneven.
In order to more thoroughly investigate the impact of juvenile curfew laws, Wilson and his colleagues (2016) recently conducted a scientifically rigorous meta-analysis of 12 studies that examined the effect of juvenile curfew laws. All of these studies were conducted in the United States and were published since 1999. The findings of the meta-analysis indicated that juvenile curfew laws do not reduce either juvenile delinquent behavior or juvenile victimization. Although studies included in the statistical review suffered from various methodological limitations, the authors found that “while we cannot firmly conclude that juvenile curfews have no effect on crime, the lack of any credible evidence in their favor suggests that any effect is likely to be small at best and that curfews are unlikely to be a meaningful solution to juvenile crime and disorder” (Wilson et al., 2016, p. 31).
The results of this research are important to consider for a number of reasons. First, the constitutionality and legal justification for juvenile curfews are based on the effectiveness of these laws in reducing juvenile crime and protecting juveniles from victimization. Scientific evidence does not support juvenile curfews in achieving these goals, which means legal challenges may become more common. Second, it is known that most juvenile crime and victimization does not occur during typical curfew hours; rather, these behaviors most often occur during after-school and evening hours. This points to the importance of initially utilizing problem analysis in combination with adopting empirically supported policies, programs, and practices.
Finally, findings from research on the effectiveness of juvenile curfew laws illustrate why being evidence-based is superior to relying on “common sense” or personal hunches about “what works.” The past 30 years are littered with examples of policies and programs that intuitively sounded good at the time, but upon further inspection, did not hold up under scientific scrutiny. Examples include Scared Straight, military-style boot camps, DARE, neighborhood watch, and juvenile transfer to adult court. Data-driven decision-making, proactive planning and evaluation, and evidence-based policies, programs, and practices all hold potential for both implementing the most effective approaches and continuing to learn about what works best for preventing and reducing crime and victimization.
The full study by Wilson et al. (2016) can be found at:
Bannister, A. J., Carter, D. L., & Schafer, J. (2001). A national police survey on the use of juvenile curfews. Journal of Criminal Justice, 29(3), 233.
Good, L. (2006, February 13). Youth curfews continue to show promise. Nation’s Cities Weekly, 29(4). Retrieved from http://icma.org/en/Article/10270/Youth_Curfews_Continue_to_Show_Promise
McDowall, D. (2000). Up to speed: A review of research for practitioners: Juvenile curfew laws and their influence on crime. Federal Probation, 64(2), 58-63.
Ruefle, W., & Reynolds, K. M. (1995). Curfews and delinquency in major American cities. Crime and Delinquency, 41(3), 347-363.
Ruefle, W., & Reynolds, K. M. (1996). Keep them at home: Juvenile curfew ordinances in 200 American cities. American Journal of Police, 15(1), 63-84.
Wilson, D. B., Gill, C., Olaghere, A., McClure, D. (2016). Juvenile curfew effects on criminal behavior and victimization: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2016:3.
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