Curfews don’t reduce crime. Columbus opted to enforce one anyway.

Numerous academic studies have determined that juvenile curfews have little to no impact on violent crime. So why do cities across the United States continue to institute them?
The Short North
The Short NorthAndy Downing

Mayor Andrew Ginther announced in June that Columbus would begin enforcing the city’s curfew ordinance, his statement coming on the heels of a series of Short North shootings, including one that left 10 people wounded.

In an email, Ginther spokesperson Melanie Crabill said the decision to enforce the longstanding statute could not be attributed to a specific incident but rather to a broader “uptick in violent crime during those curfew hours that involve folks under 18, both as victims and perpetrators.”

Under the curfew, teens between the ages of 13 and 17 are required to be off the streets between midnight and 4:30 a.m. Children under the age of 13 are required to be off the streets one hour after sunset (which falls around 9 p.m. tonight) until 4:30 a.m.

Columbus is not alone in introducing or reestablishing youth curfews. Following an Easter night incident in which two teenagers were shot, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said the city would again limit the hours young people could be outside on weekends absent adult supervision.

Scott’s announcement continued a recent trend in which more than a dozen cities and counties across the United States either enacted or once again enforced youth curfews – despite comprehensive academic studies showing these ordinances have little impact on crime.

“Juvenile curfews have really two goals,” said David Wilson, a criminology professor at George Mason University and the author of a 2016 study on the efficacy of youth curfews. “One is reducing crime among juveniles, and another is protecting them from victimization. And there’s no evidence that either one of those things occurs.”

Wilson said there are also unintended “opportunity costs” that come with curfew enforcement, including the reality that officers are not doing other things “that may be more beneficial in reducing crime or protecting victims” during those times they’re invested in curfew checks.

“In the past, we wanted to see our officers battling violent crimes versus rounding up teenagers,” Crabill wrote. “What we’ve seen since then is juveniles who are either victims or assailants of violent crime during curfew hours. It’s our job to keep them safe and for right now, this is one of the tools to do so.”

But these efforts remain at odds with national trends and numerous academic studies. According to a 2022 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, arrests of people 17 or younger for violent crimes have been declining nationwide for years. And even when youths are involved in violent crime, the incidents tend to occur in the early afternoon hours when schools let out, long before most curfews begin. 

Additionally, a working paper by economists Jillian Carr and Jennifer Doleac determined that youth curfews actually increased gun violence, the pair drawing this conclusion after studying the effects of a juvenile curfew in Washington D.C., which they said led to a 50 percent increase in incidents of gunfire during curfew hours. Attempting to frame the rise, Carr and Doleac hypothesized that "removing bystanders and witnesses from the streets could reduce their deterrent effect on street crime." A later study by the Brookings Institute even contended that cities could make their streets safer by repealing youth curfews and eliminating the negative impacts that can accompany them “in terms of public safety, community trust, and limiting juveniles’ and parents’ choices.”

Recently, State lawmakers in Ohio proposed a ban on youth curfews, saying the ordinances “cater to criminals” and hurt local businesses. “They need revenue; they need staff,” Rep. Jeff LaRe (R-Violet Twp.) said in an interview with the Ohio Capital Journal, citing conversations with members of the Ohio Restaurant Association. “This curfew is going to affect all of that.”

Asked via email if the city had considered any of these studies before restarting curfew enforcement, Crabill didn’t provide a response; a related question asking if officials could point this reporter to any studies that affirmed the effectiveness of curfews in curbing violence also went unanswered.

But Columbus isn't alone. Even in the face of this competing evidence, curfews remain a popular tool for city leaders across the country, which Wilson attributed to a number of factors, including the reality that instituting a curfew allows a city’s political leadership to say it is taking action to try and counter a rise in violent crime at no added cost to taxpayers.

“If you think about it from the position of politicians and legislators, it allows them to demonstrate that they’re trying to do something, and without it having a budget line,” Wilson said. “So, it’s win-win, right? They can say, ‘Look, we passed the curfew,’ and they didn’t have to reach into the county coffers to come up with money for it in the way they would with programs that might actually be beneficial but are, quite frankly, expensive.”

“The answer is always more policing and never more resources,” said Stacey Little of Central Ohio Freedom Fund. “I think there’s a habit of not looking to other cities that have instituted things that work, like midnight basketball leagues. Of course the goal is to decrease violence among youth and young adults, but there are ways to do it that don’t involve causing more harm.”

Erin Upchurch, executive director of Kaleidoscope Youth Center, said the issue of young people being out beyond curfew is “a symptom of something deeper,” and that leaders should look to the roots to find real solutions for the issues driving an increase in youth violence.

“When people are born, that’s when it starts, and it’s making sure they’re growing up in places where their needs are met,” said Upchurch who pointed to shortfalls in everything from safe, sustainable housing to basic needs such as food, clothing, mental health support and gender-affirming primary care. “People grow up in places where they’re in survival mode all of the time. … And so, I think looking at our neighborhoods and seeing what’s needed resource-wise is the best way to be preventative. And it’s going to take some time, of course, to do that.”

Citing statistics provided by Mission Measurement, Upchurch said there are roughly 7,000 unhoused or housing insecure youth in Franklin County. “We like to use the lens of transformative justice and ask, ‘What is it that’s allowing these harms to occur? What is happening that so many young people don’t have safe and stable housing? What is happening that there are so many people who are hungry?’” Upchurch said. “We have a lot of really big issues, and getting to the bottom of what has allowed them to happen is a good place to start.”

Some critics contend that youth curfews are not just ineffective but also potentially harmful, increasing the number of contacts between police and Black and Brown teenagers, and further straining the already tense relationship between police and the community. 

“I think it’s another form of harassment, and another way to insert power over people’s bodies, even kids,” Little said. “We know about the school-to-prison pipeline, and we’re talking about school-age kids that are going to be getting tickets, possibly getting arrested. … And I think kids are already on edge, and there’s already an inherent fear of contact with the police, even if you aren’t doing anything. They see what’s going on. They see the interactions [Black people] have with police all over the place. And let’s be real, Columbus has a horrendous track record of unaliving children.”

In response, Crabill wrote that the city continues “to build bridges between our officers and the public,” pointing to programs such as Teens and Police Serve Academy (TAPS) and the Police Athletic League (PAL), which she said are geared to making sure “our kids have positive interactions with CPD.”

Some of the reasons curfews more heavily impact Black and Brown teenagers are more benign, Wilson said, such as when and how police cross paths with a juvenile. In the suburbs, he said, the teenager is more likely to be in a car, and the areas are generally less heavily patrolled than in denser, more urban areas. But there are also implicit biases that can factor into these interactions.

“With these curfews, there’s a high degree of discretion on the part of the police officer. First, they have to make a decision in the moment if someone appears to be under 18,” Wilson said. “And then, even setting aside any intentional or overt racism, there are implicit biases that might shape that decision to even approach a youth … And so, what you have is a law that isn’t always enforced, and when it is it is done so idiosyncratically. And that opens up all of these opportunities for negative consequences.”

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