As schools let out for the summer, police often become concerned about juvenile crime. The idea is that restless teenagers will be more likely to commit crimes when they don’t have any homework to do. In response, police tend to ramp up enforcement of the curfews already in place.
But that’s ultimately an oversimplification of the issue.
Although certain kinds of crimes may rise during the summer months — for juveniles it may be crimes such as theft of bikes, there isn’t enough solid national data to suggest that summer crime waves among juveniles are a real source of concern. And contrary to popular belief, the spike in crime typically doesn’t happen after curfew. Although the spike in violent crime by juvenile offenders tends to happen at 3 pm on school days and 7 to 9 pm on non-school days, 63 percent of violent crimes happen on school days according to U.S. Department of Justice data.
To make matters worse, although this kind of summer activity is pretty common across race and social class, according to a paper from the Annie Casey Foundation, the kids being penalized for it are usually low-income and children of color. That’s because curfew laws are enforced in predominantly black and Hispanic and low-income neighborhoods.
What’s wrong with curfews
Curfews are very common in the summer months. In Chicago, for example, the curfew begins at 10 p.m. and ends at 6 a.m. for everyone aged 12 to 16 on most weekday nights. In Philadelphia, the curfew ranges from 11 p.m. to 9 p.m., depending on the age of the child. San Francisco, Memphis, and Boston are also among the most populous 25 cities that have curfews.
In Baltimore, a citywide curfew starting at 9 p.m. in 2014 and 10 p.m. for 2015 was lifted last spring. But the city still has one of the strictest curfews in the country for juveniles — 9 p.m. for kids under 14, and 10 p.m. for minors older than 14.
To some people, these policies may seem like common sense. If fewer people are out, the reasoning goes, then fewer crimes will be committed.
But that’s simply not the case. Violent crimes actually peak in the after school hours and 29 percent of all violent crime committed by juveniles happens between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to U.S. Department of Justice data from 2009 to 2010, but for some reason, cities across the country still believe in curfews.
“If you don’t have good evidence, good data to show that there is a juvenile crime problem at that time of night, why would you put a law in place that affects only a certain age group for no good reason?” asked Melissa Sickmund, Ph.D., director of the Research Division for the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
Sickmund added that curfew-related arrests make up a very high percentage of juvenile arrests in Philadelphia — over 60 percent. FBI data from 2014 shows that 46 percent of curfew arrests are of black young people.
“Now I think of Philadelphia as a really tough place, but kids are not getting arrested for assault or robbery,” she said. “They’re getting brought in for curfew and so one needs to have the conversation with police, is this just a reason you are using to face to kids on the street in case they have done something seriously wrong? What happens to those kids?”
“What happens to those kids?”
Moreover, studies show it may not even work. The Brookings Institution released a study last year showing that when the Washington D.C. weekday curfew was moved from midnight to 11 p.m., the number of gunshot incidents didn’t fall during that hour, but increased by 150 percent. This made the authors be believe that previous research asserting that less crime happens when more people are out on the streets was correct and likely makes juvenile curfew policies “counter-productive.”
How cities can do better
Experts say that when you provide parents and other caretakers with low-cost or free community options that can engage young people during the summer months, kids are less likely to get restless and commit these minor offenses or status offenses (which are offenses adults can’t arrested for).
Organizations such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and YWCA, which are lower cost to the community, can help fulfill that need. In Baltimore, YouthWorks Baltimore, a summer jobs program for young people from age 14 to 21 keeps kids busy in the summer and the Baltimore Algebra Project pays young people to teach math to their peers year-round. According to 2014 University of Chicago research, young people who participated in the city’s summer jobs program had 43 percent fewer arrests for violent crimes than peers in a control group over the course of 16 months.
Lisa Pilnik, the deputy director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, pointed out that these organizations — whether part of a national organization or a new local community center — will be most effective if they consider kids’ feedback.
“I think if you give kids the better options, they’ll take them. Adolescence is a time where kids are figuring out who they are so if you give them pro-social ways to do that you strengthen communities,” Pilnik said. “Let’s ask what they like and what they don’t. Maybe we’re running a basketball program and it’s full every day and we’re also running an art program and no one shows up for that … Maybe we need to examine the staffing or the activities. It’s about having youth at table but also constantly looking at what you’re doing and trying to improve.”
The problem is that cities don’t always invest in the kinds of programs — and when they cut back, they pay more in the long run. For example, in June 2015, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she would provide $4.2 million in funding for after-school programs for 2,500 students. But this spring, that $4.2 million was cut due to revenue shortfalls.
“There is no reason that a kid shouldn’t be allowed to just be on the street, and it’s short-sighted to cut funding or choose not to fund programs that give them better alternatives,” said Pilnik. “Because once you get kids involved in the justice system, we know they have poor outcomes in terms of jobs and later criminal involvement and so it’s one of those situations where a penny spent wisely saves you a dollar later in terms of all of those costs.”
By focusing on curfew, it often ends up creating a situation where young people who are already going through difficult situations — kids whose parent or foster parent may have been neglectful — end up getting arrested. A young person who ran away from home, for example, could be arrested for violating curfew. Many young people breaking the law or committing status offenses are in need of social services, not a record.
Of course, taking a different approach to juvenile justice is also key to ensuring that young people stay out of the justice system. For example, some police force have decided it isn’t worth their time to take this punitive approach, and that a smarter avenue would be to ensure young people get help when they need it. Several states have stopped sending juveniles to adult court without judicial review, and Florida has introduced “assessment centers” — places where juvenile justice experts and liaisons from various service providers can help refer children to needed services — to cut down on unnecessary arrests.
“If, while they’re doing a needs assessment, that kid has other needs, they can make referrals right then and there and they’re not putting a child in detention unless its warranted,” Sickmund said in reference to assessment centers. “They’re trying to do everything they can to keep the kid out of the system, rather than doing everything they can to keep the kid in the system.”