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Analysis of U.S. Curfew Laws


Criminalizing harmless behavior to prevent crime has long been the norm particularly for young people, despite often, dubious evidence of its effectiveness. Many times people assume obvious correlations exist between youth behavior and social problems and remove their constitutional rights with the very minimal, or almost no evidence it is necessary. The most blatant example of this is the use of curfew laws, which have been challenged on a number of constitutional grounds. Despite their vast use across the nation over the last decade, no conclusive evidence can be amounted for their effectiveness in curtailing juvenile crime. Many communities have flaunted curfew laws as “great successes.” However, no law enforcement agency has ever done any serious empirical study on curfew laws. Instead, evidence supporting curfews is mainly anecdotal and from survey data. Such data is problematic in that it focuses on perceived trends rather than actual trends. For example, while it is factual to claim:

Monrovia, California’s curfew adoption was followed by a 32 percent decline in residential burglaries.

One could also claim:

In 1992, San Francisco authorities dismantled their previously vigorous curfew enforcement, which had resulted in 1,400 arrests during the previous five years. Only three curfew arrests were made during 1993-97. Crime plummeted. From 1992 to 1997, juvenile murders declined fifty percent, property crimes reported to police declined thirty-six percent, and violent crimes reported to police declined by forty-one percent, the latter of which was the largest crime decrease of any large California city.

One may conclude from the first that curfew laws are effective and conclude from the second that they are not effective. However, neither is comparing the data to other controlled data sets, and so neither is adequately testing the hypothesis that curfew laws reduce juvenile crime. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of anecdotal data cannot be completely discounted. Most law enforcement officials in communities with curfews report they have perceived a decrease in juvenile crime since the institution of their curfews.

Curfew laws have been challenged on a variety of constitutional grounds. Although some may argue juveniles do not have constitutional rights, the Supreme Court in many cases has ruled that people have constitutional rights regardless of age. Often these cases have involved issues of students’ rights in schools. Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969 ruled that students had the right to freedom of speech in schools. This case involved how school officials had forbidden a group of students from carrying out their symbolic protest of the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. The constitutional rights of young people have been affirmed in many other cases, such as their religious freedom in schools, where religious activity is allowed as long as it is student led. In the case Missouri v. Danforth in 1976, it was directly stated that people have full constitutional rights regardless of age. In the court’s opinion:

Constitutional rights do not mature and come into being magically only when one attains the state-defined age of majority.

Although young people are subject to a large number of restrictions based upon age, the judicial system has a long precedent for people having full constitutional rights regardless of age.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that the rights of freedom of speech and assembly go hand in hand. In order to voice opinion, it is sometimes necessary to gather protests, and the only way to accomplish this is if there is freedom to gather in public as long as it is peaceful. The fourteenth amendment also guarantees that state and local governments cannot take away first amendment rights. Many curfew laws, however, have exceptions written in them that allow offenders to be exempt if they are involved in a political protest. The importance of the use of public property such as streets and parks for conducting political speech has been protected by freedom of assembly under the first amendment since Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496 in 1939. This case involved a group of people denied permits from the police for holding a meeting in a building in Jersey City for allegedly being communist. The city ordinance required anyone conducting a speech advocating obstruction of government to obtain a permit through the police station before getting a lease to any hall or building for conducting the speech. However, in Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 554 , 464 (1965), it was ruled states may impose reasonable regulations upon assembly. In the opinion of the court:

One would not be justified in ignoring the familiar red light because this was thought to be a means of social protest. Nor could one, contrary to traffic regulations, insist upon a street meeting in the middle of Times Square at the rush hour as a form of freedom of speech or assembly.

However, the regulatory measures must be narrowly defined to reach only the legitimate objectives of the state regulation. While the Supreme Court’s interpretation of freedom of speech is broad, its interpretation of freedom of assembly appears to be narrow.

Curfew laws directly remove the right to assemble in public, and many times even on private, property. The constitutionality of youth curfew laws has yet to be tested in the Supreme Court. Lower courts are divided over the issue, many ruling unconstitutional, and many ruling constitutional. The Supreme Court has only ever had one case to do with a curfew law in history, Kiyoshi Hirabayashi v. United States in 1943. This case was concerning the curfew imposed upon Japanese during World War II. It was upheld because the court felt constitutional rights were less applicable in times of war.

General curfews have often been imposed as a response to an emergency, such as riots, and they usually were implemented only a few days to a few weeks. The key difference is that they are intended from the start to be temporary, whereas youth curfews are intended to be permanent. A general curfew, which applied to all citizens to respond to a temporary emergency, was appealed to the Supreme Court in Janet Stotland v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They refused to hear the case. However, Justice Douglas dissented arguing that curfew laws may be necessary when the security of the state is threatened, but they raised serious questions about the right of assembly. He stated he was concerned about the possible abuse of curfew laws in clearing the public of “undesirable people,” such as minorities, and he argued a curfew law should be temporary and narrowly defined.

The judicial system often applies a test to see if a law is narrowly defined enough and does not give the authorities too much power. Many lower courts that ruled a youth curfew law unconstitutional later ruled it constitutional after many exceptions were added into the law. Although curfew laws violate constitutional rights, the courts ruling in favor of curfew laws state they have a “compelling state interest” of reducing juvenile crime and victimization. Few people care about the rights of other people, and usually they only care about their own. Many adults seem not care about the rights of young people at all, by making their mere presence illegal. A survey conducted by Wichita State University asking cities nationwide a variety of questions concerning curfew laws found no city that didn't have a curfew law specifying constitutional issues as a reason for not having it. For these reasons, the only aspect about curfew laws that may really matter is if they are necessary, and if they do in fact accomplish their stated goals of reducing juvenile crime and victimization. Thus having a “compelling state interest.”

Nationwide, the majority of cities with curfew laws claim they are great successes in reducing crime. In a survey done by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it was found that the officials in 88% of the cities with curfew laws believed that they helped reduce juvenile crime. However, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the survey “did not include a statistical analysis of the effect curfews have had on crime”. In addition, I was only able to find one study of the effectiveness of curfew laws that did a statistical hypothesis test that the level of curfew enforcement is negatively correlated with the level of other crime. It was the only one to use the basic procedures of using controlled data and testing for statistical significance. Curfews have been around for a long time, and the crime statistics to study them are readily available. The fact that virtually no research has been done, while so many people are claiming curfew laws are great successes, seems very irresponsible, and should lend itself to skepticism. Although statistics are often used to deceive, they’re often the only way of measuring the real world, if done properly. Law enforcement agencies that say they “observe” a decline in juvenile crime should explain exactly how they observe it. Law enforcement officials report whatever crime measure conveniently shows crime has decreased. For example, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention did a study of curfew laws in 1996 and used crime victimization in some cities, arrest figures in others, and arrest figures for only selected crimes in still others. It made no controlled comparisons, and so it is useless for research purposes.

The main stated reasons for curfew laws is reducing juvenile crime and victimization, but is this really the reason for curfew laws? Two studies done by the LAPD in 1998 each came to opposite conclusions. One that the curfew law in Los Angeles increased crime, and the other that the curfew law decreased crime. Both reports, however, came to the same conclusion, that the curfew law should remain because it was an “effective tool”. This, and the unwillingness to prove the effectiveness of curfew laws using any formal statistical analysis, suggests there may be other motivations for curfew laws.

Sociologist Michael Males, a professor at the University of California, and Dan Macallair, did do a broad study of the effectiveness of curfew laws in California. The study is available online, and he discusses it in his book. Males reports several criminologists reviewed his study before it was published in 1998 in the Western Criminology Review. However, he does not cite these criminologists. Males analyzed arrest, reported crime, and mortality data from jurisdictions throughout California for years 1980 to 1997. Males analyzed the correlation between the number of curfew arrests and the number of juvenile arrests for other crimes among the 12 most populous counties in California. He compared the levels of different types of crime, such as violent, homicide, property, and arson. He compared juvenile crime rates among cities with increasing levels of curfew enforcement with cities with declining levels of curfew enforcement. He analyzed the crime on a statewide level and on a local level in two case studies. His first case study involved an analysis of the correlation of the curfew law enforcement in Monrovia, CA with the juvenile crime data for Monrovia. His second case study also involved a comparison of the correlation between curfew law enforcement and juvenile crime data in two cities, San José and San Francisco. San Francisco had high levels of curfew enforcement in the 80's, cut back in the 90's, and then repealed its curfew law in 1995. San José did the opposite, increasing its level of curfew enforcement in the 90's. Males tested the hypothesis that the correlation between the level of curfew enforcement and the level of juvenile crime was negative, meaning that as the level of curfew enforcement rose, the level of juvenile crime should have decreased. His conclusion was that he found no correlation between the level of curfew enforcement and the level of juvenile crime, and in some instances, the correlation was actually positively related. This was true for both the measures of reported crime and arrest rates. Males believes arrest rates are the best available measure of juvenile crime, because the age of the offender is directly known. However, arrest rates do have one inherent flaw. They are unable to measure crime history. For example, a juvenile who committed one crime and is arrested and an adult who committed forty crimes and is arrested are both recorded as having one arrest, and so all statistics carry the same weight no matter how many crimes the offender committed. Despite this flaw, however, Males feels arrest rates are a better crime measure than the only other available method, which is reported crime. The vast majority of reported crime never results in an arrest, and so the age of the offender is usually never known. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports in 1997, adults commit seventy-five to ninety percent of all reported crime, and so statistics measuring juvenile crime trends that use reported crime are heavily biased. Despite this fact, after Males concluded his study, many curfew law supporters argued arrest figures were not a reliable measure for juvenile crime trends. They argued this even though many used arrest figures originally to argue for curfew laws. In response to critics, Males redid his study using reported crime as the measure, and he came to the same conclusion. Males’ analysis of curfew laws throughout the state of California, over the maximum time period reliable data was available for, found no conclusive evidence that a correlation existed between the level of curfew enforcement and the level of juvenile crime that was statistically significant.

The Monrovia, CA Police Department published a report refuting Males’ and Dan Macallair’s study written by the Chief of Police. Chief of Police, Joseph Santoro, argues Dan Macallair is biased, because he works for the Home School Legal Defense Association, who is suing the city of Monrovia over its daytime curfew law. This may be true, that Dan Macallair and Males are not the most objective researchers over the matter. However, if law enforcement agencies want a curfew law merely because they believe it is an “effective tool” regardless of how it affects crime, as the Los Angeles Police Department did, then they can hardly be called objective researchers either. The Monrovia, CA Police Department refutation contends Males’ and Dan Macallair’s work is also questionable because they received the data directly from the Home School Legal Defense Association. Males and Macallair, however, claim they obtained the data from primary sources.

Data on crime by offense type, age of arrestee, year, and county are taken directly from the California Department of Justice’s Law Enforcement Information Center (LEIC), annually reported statewide in Crime and Delinquency in California and by county and city in California Criminal Justice Profile through 1995, and statewide and by county in their 1996 and 1997 updates.

Santoro claims Males and Macallair are wrong to claim crime has increased due to curfew laws by analyzing arrest data, because the number or arrests simply increased because of officers discovering already existing crime due to more contact with juveniles. This is probably true. Arrest figures might also increase for adults if officers stopped and questioned every single adult they came into contact with. However, Males’ and Dan Macallair’s conclusion is not that curfew laws increase the level of crime. Specifically, their claim is they found no significant correlation between the level of curfew enforcement and the number of juvenile arrests comparing many different jurisdictions throughout California. Santoro cites anecdotal data. He says:

Contrary to the study, after three years, Monrovia’s program has contributed to a 39% reduction in truancy and 29% reduction in crime during school hours, including the following crimes associated with truancy:

Residential Burglary Down 32% Bicycle Theft Down 94%

Vehicle Burglary Down 59% Disturbances Down 30%

Petty Theft Down 16% Grand Theft Auto Down 46%.

The problem with anecdotal data is that there are too many questions. What is used to measure crime in this instance? Reported crime or arrest data? If both are used at the same time, then the results are incompatible with each other. How do these rates compare to before the curfew was instituted? Since crime has been decreasing overall, then it is probably more important to know if crime rates decreased significantly faster after the curfew law was instituted. How do the reductions in crime compare to other cities with and without curfew laws? How do the reductions in crime compare to adults who are not subject to the curfew law? If there was a 29% reduction in juvenile crime during curfew hours, then how was the crime rate affected during non-curfew hours?

Santoro argues Dan Macallair places too little emphasis on survey data obtained from cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. They did mention the study. However, it is clear already that the vast majority of public policy leaders support the use of curfew laws, and they place no emphasis on empirical research at all. This was exactly the reason for Males’ and Dan Macallair’s study.

Most of the reports I researched about curfew laws were specifically addressing matters of policy. As a matter of policy, the explanation for curfew laws is primarily an effort to decrease juvenile crime. However, I find no explanations as to why specifically targeting juvenile crime is more important than targeting adult crime. Juvenile crime rates have been declining regardless of the existence of curfew laws or no curfew laws. Moreover, juvenile crime makes up the lowest proportion of crime altogether, except for the elderly. The report done by Wichita State University even states recent school shootings such as at Littleton, CO as a reason given by some communities for instituting curfew laws. The report admits there is a vague connection, at best, between curfew laws and school shootings. The perception of rapidly increasing juvenile crime may simply be increased attention to it. Despite the vast amount of expert testimony in support of curfew laws, there is no empirical evidence curfew laws actually work. If Mike Males and Dan Macallair are biased in their study, then why are law enforcement agencies, or any other institution, completely unwilling to examine their study and conduct similar empirical studies? I found very little concern in any of the reports I read for the ethical issues involved with curfew laws, except from the American Civil Liberties Union. The proper response to crime, including juvenile crime, is to arrest people suspected of criminal conduct, not to keep millions of innocent, law-abiding young people under house arrest. If there is no conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of youth curfew laws, after decades of use, then there is no “compelling state interest” necessary to deny young people their constitutional rights.


  1. Ricardi, N. 1997. June 5. Small-Town Success. Los Angeles Times, B14-15.
  2. Males, Mike and Dan Macallair. 1999. “An Analysis of Curfew Enforcement and Juvenile Crime in California.” Western Criminology Review 1 (2). [Online]. Available: http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v1n2/males.html
  3. U.S. SUPREME COURT TINKER v. DES MOINES SCHOOL DIST., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), FindLaw.com [Online]. Available: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/393/503.html
  4. U.S. SUPREME COURT PLANNED PARENTHOOD OF MISSOURI v. DANFORTH, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), [Online]. Available: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/428/52.html
  5. U.S. SUPREME COURT HAGUE v. COMMITTEE FOR INDUSTRIALORGANIZATION, 307 U.S. 496 (1939), FindLaw.com [Online]. Available: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/307/496.html
  6. U.S. SUPREME COURT COX v. LOUISIANA, 379 U.S. 536 (1965), Findlaw.com [Online]. Available: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/379/536.html
  7. U.S. SUPREME COURT STOTLAND v. PENNSYLVANIA, 398 U.S. 916 (1970), FindLaw.com [Online]. Available: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=search&court=US&case=/us/398/916.html
  8. ANDRA J. (KATZ) BANNISTER, PH.D., DAVID L. CARTER, PH.D., & JOSEPH SCHAFER, PH.D. (2000) POLICIES AND PRACTICES RELATED TO JUVENILE CURFEWS [Online]. Regional Community Policing Institute, Wichita State University. Available: http://www.wsurcpi.org/papers/policy_papers/Curfew%20Research.pdf
  9. U.S. Conference of Mayors. (1997). A Status Report on Youth Curfews in America’s Cities: A 347-City Survey. [Online]. Available:
  10. Wilgoren, J., and Fiore, F. (1997, December 2). Curfews Cited For Drop In Juvenile Crime. Los Angeles Times, A1, A26, A27.
  11. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). (1996). Curfew: An Answer to Juvenile Delinquency and Victimization? U.S. Department of Justice, [Online]. Available:
  12. Los Angeles Police Department (1998). Enhanced Curfew Enforcement Effort. January and July.
  13. Males, Mike A. (1999). Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
  14. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1997). Uniform Crime Reports for the United States. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.
    Santoro, Joseph A. (1998). Police Chief charges Justice Policy Institute’s study on curfew has little to do with science or reality. Monrovia Police Department. Commentary. [Online]. Available: http://www.ci.monrovia.ca.us/city_hall/police_department/police_curfew.htm


Recopied with permission. Thank you to Jeff Nadel http://www.youthrights.org

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