Metropolis

Indoor Kids

Cities have turned to an old standby to reduce crime: teen curfews. There’s just one problem.

A teenage girl stares at her cell phone, indoors. It's dark outside.
Home at 10:01 p.m. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

In the summer of 2021, Atlantic City, New Jersey, added a new noise to the nightly soundtrack of crashing waves and carnival rides: a shrieking citywide siren. First installed in 2005 to evacuate the beach during lightning storms, the network of sirens—with the rise-hold-fall cadence of an air-raid horn—was expanded using federal COVID aid to meet the needs of that post-pandemic summer: telling kids to go inside every night at 10.

Faced with a wave of gun violence, many cities have decided that minors need to be home before the late-night news, sirens or no. In May, Chicago established a 10 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors, and barred them from downtown’s Millennium Park starting at 6 p.m. on weekends. In September, Prince George’s County, outside Washington, D.C., started enforcing a curfew for kids 16 and under. Last summer, Philadelphia experimented with a 10 p.m. curfew after juvenile homicides tripled between 2015 and 2021; last month, the city made it permanent.

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“A lot of young people involved in criminal activity were involved because they were out late. This is meant to protect young people from being victims of crime,” says Katherine Gilmore Richardson, the Philly councilmember who has pushed for the new restrictions, which replace an older system of fines with a handful of youth centers where kids can hang out after curfew.

The idea is grounded in common sense: Basically everyone agrees that teenagers ought to be in bed before midnight anyway, and curfews theoretically keep well-meaning kids from getting into trouble and reinforce parental authority and family time, while scaring aspiring criminals straight.

Philadelphia has actually had a youth curfew since 1955, and the earliest U.S. policies date from the late 19th century. Their popularity and enforcement waxes and wanes with agita over kids and crime. After the super-predator panic of the 1990s, 70 percent of cities reported at the U.S. Conference of Mayors that their town had a curfew for minors on the books. As another crime wave crests, the measures are back in vogue—newly, and sometimes loudly, enforced.

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There’s just one problem: Even after more than a century of curfews in thousands of U.S. municipalities, no one seems to agree that they reduce crime. As a 2002 literature review found: “Overall, the weight of the scientific evidence, based on ten studies with weak to moderately rigorous designs, fails to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization.” A 2015 review also found mixed results, albeit with a consensus that curfews inadvertently helped teen health by reducing traffic crashes. An update from 2017 found “no change in juvenile crime rates, an increase, and a decrease” across various studies, sociologists Katherine Hazen and Eve Brank wrote. Perhaps because, as they pointed out, most violent juvenile crime occurs between 3 and 7 p.m.—when kids are out of school but parents are still at work, and long before curfew.

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How could a juvenile curfew increase crime? One study showing that result comes from Washington, D.C., which enacted a curfew in 1995. Economists Jillian Carr and Jennifer Doleac found that there was more gunfire in the 11 p.m. hour with a curfew in place than during the same time frame with no curfew, likely because of the changing composition of people on the street. Fewer “eyes on the street,” fewer witnesses, more shootings. Hardened criminals, they noted, are less likely to be deterred by a slap on the wrist of curfew enforcement.

Critics argue that curfews do harm. Ivonne Roman, who served for more than two decades on the Newark police force, including as chief, told me curfews were akin to stop and frisk—an unevenly applied policy that decreases trust between police and the community, mostly penalizing people who have done nothing wrong. “Cops didn’t enjoy having to chase kids around,” she says. “We keep putting responsibilities on police officers that aren’t theirs. Being a babysitter isn’t the best role for a police officer. If there’s violence involved, they don’t need the curfew policy to make an arrest.” The concern about interactions between police and teenagers feels particularly relevant in the wake of the George Floyd protests of 2020, which revealed (and perpetuated) the distrust between police departments and Black youth. Curfews give police officers another reason to initiate adversarial interactions with minority teens.

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Richardson brushed these concerns aside when we spoke. “As a Black woman born and raised in the city of Philadelphia, I understand the consternation,” she says. “But at the end of the day I’m not going to apologize for seeking to do all that we can to help our young people.” If kids are out at night because they face abuse at home, she says, then a curfew is a good way to figure that out. Aside from sociologists of crime data and ACLU lawyers, the politics of curfews are pretty good: No one really thinks teenagers should be out at 11 p.m. And teens don’t vote.

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Even the kids themselves aren’t sure. In a survey from New Orleans, 85 percent of teens thought a curfew was a good idea. Though half said they would not abide by it themselves.

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“Teenagers around my age like to go out late at night with friends and have fun,” 17-year-old A’liyah Kent wrote last summer in an essay for WHYY in Philadelphia. “Going outside and actually exploring places is a way to maintain our happiness. A lot of teenagers, including myself, feel isolated and can’t stay in the house for too long, especially after being at home for so long during the pandemic. It can increase social anxiety and limit in-person socializing with the outside world.” A recent study in Psychological Science reports that urban wandering is most popular with kids on the cusp of adulthood. The more they wander, the happier and more socially connected they feel.

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It’s kind of tragic: After the extreme social isolation of the pandemic came the crime wave, and the result is teenagers’ being once again cooped up in the house. Philadelphia, at least, has opened a handful of late-night rec centers for teens. These offer video games, arts and crafts, and classes, Richardson says. But they’re sparsely attended, with just a few hundred kids coming in during the first six months of operation.

Last month, across the Delaware River in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, unaccompanied minors were even banished from the mall—that iconic teenage refuge—after a series of fights. It’s one of a series of teen bans that roil U.S. shopping centers from time to time—part of a debate over unaccompanied teenagers at the mall that goes back at least a quarter century, says Alexandra Lange, the author of Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall.

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When I asked her about creating urban spaces for teens (she also wrote a book about designing for children), Lange pointed me toward a number of architects and activists focused on the problem. Those included Chat Travieso, whose Yes Loitering project lays out ideas for making New York’s public spaces more friendly to teenagers; the Chicago-based urban design program Territory, which has teen volunteers design and construct street furniture and public space; and Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts, which trains teenagers in applied arts like screenprinting and mural painting.

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Hazen, the sociologist, pointed out the success of Midnight Basketball, a program that is just what it sounds like (albeit not just for teenagers) and has made a resurgence in recent years as a violence-diversion program in high-crime neighborhoods. It’s mostly for men and boys—those who can get around curfew, anyway. But as Lange observes, urban designers are focused on building new spaces for girls as well, often with less of an emphasis on sports than for their male peers. One such project is an “inclusive landscape” called “Restorative Ground” in Manhattan’s Hudson Square, by WIP Collaborative. It features, she writes, “many of the features other designers working with teens highlight: lounge-like seating for groups, a sense of enclosure while maintaining visibility for safety, and playable but not kiddish elements, like the hammock and rails.”

All these things would give kids a reason to be out of the house. But maybe that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

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