Chicago is often portrayed nationally as a terrifying urban dystopia of incessant violence. The mixed working-class Polish and Hispanic neighborhood we live in on the north side is extremely safe, though; there hasn't been any crime reported on our block in years.
So when my 14-year-old son and a couple of his friends decided to go out for a walk in the late evening before they settled down for their sleepover, I thought nothing of it. Our house is small, and boys are big and kinetic, so I knew everyone would be happier if they got a chance to stretch their legs a little. What could go wrong?
Wait, my neighborhood has a curfew?
Fortunately, I was right about our neighborhood being a perfectly safe place for teens to wander about at all hours. Neighbors didn't threaten them, no one mugged them, and strangers didn't hassle them. Unfortunately, they were hassled by cops. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Chicago has a curfew for minors. Children under 17 aren't allowed out after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday or after 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
My son and his friends were sitting in the park a block away chatting when two police officers came up to them. They told one of my son's friends that he matched the description of a gang member they were looking for (I find this suspicious). They told them to go home. Then they followed along by police car. When the kids got back to our house, two cops came up to my door.
The police officer told me that there was a lot of gang activity in our neighborhood and my son and his friends were in danger. He believed I was being irresponsible. Then he became borderline irate when he realized I had no intention of chastising or punishing the kids. Despite my questions, the officer talked up the value of curfews. He said they were in place for kids' safety
I did some research, and the evidence doesn't support him, though. Studies of curfews have found no correlation between curfews for minors and crime reduction. A 2012 analysis of the impact of curfews in San Diego, for example, found no benefit. A 2016 study of 46 cities similarly found no effect on youth drinking between 1991 and 2005. A 2016 review of the research concluded, "The average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive—that is, a slight increase in crime—and close to zero for crime during all hours."
Curfews for minors aren't really working.
"I don't know a single valid study that suggests that curfews work," sociologist Michael Males, a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, told me by phone. In 2000, Males conducted a study of the curfew in Vernon, Connecticut. He compared crime rates in Vernon to comparable cities without curfews, and he also looked at police arrest records.
"What we found is something around 99% of the kids that they picked up [were] doing absolutely nothing wrong," he told me. "There's no evidence of any criminal activity, no evidence of any other kind of dangerous activity. There are simply law-abiding kids that were out playing basketball or coming out of a restaurant or a movie." Or hanging out in the park, like my son and his friends.
Curfews for minors don't prevent crime, and they don't make kids safer. In fact, I would even say they make kids less safe. Unnecessary encounters with police are, at best, upsetting. My son and his friends were white, but for kids of color encounters with police are quite risky, and there's evidence that they are especially targeted by curfew laws. In 2017, Austin, Texas, ended its curfew, in part because of research showing that black youth were cited for 17% of nighttime violations, even though they were only 8% of the population.
In my research, I found that curfews for minors may even increase crime in some cities. A 2018 paper on gun violence in Washington, DC, found that the city's curfew was correlated with an 150% increase in gunfire incidents. If it seems counterintuitive that curfews would make cities less safe, consider that police enforcing curfews aren't dealing with actual crime. Furthermore, assigning police officers with the task of taking law-abiding people off the streets means criminals are free to act unobserved.
Are we really just looking for ways to control kids?
Home isn't always the safest place for kids. Researchers estimate that between 3 and 10 million children a year are exposed to domestic violence in the US. Sometimes kids are out late because the street is safer than their homes. For some kids, unfortunately, being at home makes it more, not less, likely that they'll be the victims of violence.
The evidence against curfews seems to be having some effect on policy. Many cities have repealed them, and FBI statistics show curfew arrests decreased from 133,100 in 2008 to 53,700 in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. Still, curfews in Chicago and many other cities remain in place. So what's the appeal?
Males says that curfews are popular because there is a widespread prejudice against young people. "There's an assumption that [young people are] all dangerous and anytime they're in public and on the street, something is happening which has to be prevented," he says.
Kids also don't vote and have limited formal ways to advocate for themselves. Politicians who want to be seen as doing something about crime can put a curfew in place with little pushback. Curfews "are a panacea," Males says. "They're something that's easy to do."
The idea that kids are in danger when they're outdoors is in line with parenting trends. Numerous studies and commentators have noted that kids spend less time outside than their parents did. For lots of reasons, parents don't want their kids to wander off to the park at 11:30 at night.
Curfews codify that discomfort into law. They state, officially, that young people out at night are both in danger and a threat. Curfews tell you that good children are those who are indoors and that good parents impose restrictions and tighter controls.
Let's give kids and teens back some rights.
We do now try to keep our son in when it's past curfew. But it's not to protect him from the nonexistent crime in our neighborhood. It's to protect him from being harassed. We trust him and we trust our neighbors, but the law tells a different story. It doesn't matter if we give kids independence if we don't let them practice it.
Young people often need protection most from those who claim they want to protect them. Curfews are a good microcosm of the way we, as a society, often treat children. We say we want to keep them safe, but often we just want to control them, either because we're secretly afraid of them, or because controlling people is exciting and gratifying.
I certainly don't think my son is safer because our city has a curfew. The best way to keep young people safe is to respect their autonomy, their privacy, and their rights. A good start would be repealing curfews everywhere.