The continued use of juvenile curfews by New Jersey municipalities is disappointing. For years it has been clear that they wrongly deprive youngsters of their constitutional rights and cost towns money if anyone challenges their enforcement in court. We’ve urged their repeal multiple times.
Now it is becoming just as obvious that they don’t even have the effect intended by well-meaning local government officials. They don’t reduce crime and they don’t keep juveniles safer.
New Jersey was a pioneer in the simplistic idea of banning juveniles from public, typically from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. or so. Gov. Jim Florio signed a law in 1992 giving each municipality the power to impose a juvenile curfew.
But curfews didn’t become common in the U.S. until a Clinton administration report recommended their use to address the “rising juvenile delinquency and victimization rates” of the 1990s. President Bill Clinton in 1996 authorized $75 million to help local governments enact curfews and other ordinances intended to fight crime. By 2009, curfews were the law in 84 percent of American cities mid-sized and larger.
Despite laws authorizing towns to set curfews, their enforcement consistently has been found unconstitutional when challenged in court. Their use never has been upheld by a supreme court at the state or national level.
Egg Harbor Township repealed its curfew after a judge ruled it was unconstitutional — and after the township had paid $10,000 in legal fees. A New Jersey Appellate Court invalidated West New York’s curfew law in 2004, saying such laws “criminalize the innocent activities” of teenagers.
The exemptions typical of curfew laws make obvious their deficient basis. Children and teens can’t be charged under them if they are traveling to or from work, going to a school event or religious function, or simply exercising their federal rights to free speech, religion or assembly. No wonder “no other country does this,” says Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
Curfew supporters, however, have long argued that they help prevent young people from becoming either perpetrators or victims of nighttime crime. Now research says otherwise.
A Brookings Institution study tested the effect of the curfew in Washington, D.C., comparing the 11 p.m. to midnight hour when the curfew was in effect (during the school year) to days when it wasn’t. The result: Gunshot incidents increased by 150 percent when that hour was part of the curfew — an additional seven gunfire incidents citywide per week during that hour alone. A street with people on it tends to be a safer street, while a deserted street tends to invite crime.
In 2016 the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit that synthesizes research studies for policymakers, examined over 7,000 studies on juvenile curfews and synthesized the 12 most rigorous ones. That body of “evidence suggests that juvenile curfews are ineffective at reducing crime and victimization.” Curfew hours on average had slightly increased crime, and curfews had no effect on crime overall. “Similarly, juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance.”
That confirms a 2003 systematic review by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, which found that “empirical studies of the impact of curfew laws failed to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization.”
But curfews do some things. They make black youths 269 percent more likely than white youths to be arrested for a curfew violation, according to the FBI. And they make parents of curfew violators subject to fines of up to $1,000 in many municipalities.
Towns can choose from several good reasons for repealing their curfew ordinances. They’re unfairly enforced, they don’t work as intended and they make the town liable for expensive legal costs when challenged.
Whatever they choose, they should just get it done soon.