Editor’s note: Earlier this year, following several high-profile incidents, Memphis City Council member Rhonda Logan called for stricter enforcement of a youth curfew that says youths 16 and under can not be in a public place after 10 p.m.; for 17-year-olds the curfew would begin at 11 p.m.

We asked researcher Mike Males to write about the effectiveness of curfews. He examined local crime data and found that youth aren’t as dangerous as some interest groups (and media reports) might lead readers to believe.

The council’s curfew measure appears to be stalled for now – but isn’t dead. “The resolution was tabled, and I don’t believe the votes are there to bring it off the table for consideration until a comprehensive plan to address the real issues has been vetted,” said Memphis City council member Chase Carlisle.

“In order to put that plan together, we must get input and ‘buy-in’ from all the stakeholders, which includes, but isn’t limited to the City of Memphis, the Shelby County Government, the Juvenile Court, the District Attorney’s Office, the MPD, the Sheriff’s Department, Community Affairs and most importantly, the community itself.”

In Memphis, crime by people under 18 has plummeted by nearly 80% since 1990. That decrease includes a 40% decline in violent crimes — such as assault, robbery, rape and murder — from 2019 through 2021, the lowest level ever reliably recorded. And while the 2022 data isn’t yet in, Memphis Police Department and university police reports through 2021 show today’s high-school-age teenager (13-to-17-year-olds) has about the same odds of arrest for a violent crime as a 35-to-39-year-old.

In 2019, youths accounted for 17% of Memphis’ violent crime arrests. Last year, just 11%. Arrests for felony assault, rape and robbery have all fallen among local teens, as have drug and property crimes. Arrests of children under age 13 plunged by over 50% from 2019 through 2021.

Adults aren’t doing as well. During that same time period, arrests for drug offenses and vandalism — once thought a dumb-kid scourge, now an adult crime —– rose sharply, illicit-drug overdoses have skyrocketed and arrests for aggravated assaults have not declined among grownups.

Memphis (like the rest of the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic) has suffered increased homicide. From 2019 to 2021, the number of youth arrested for homicides rose from 11 to 17, a tragic trend getting intense attention. However, homicide arrests also rose among grownups ages 25-54 (the parents), from 50 to 69. 

Memphis’ increase in shootings, like the nation’s, affects all ages and includes both street and domestic violence. Violence is not productively addressed by scapegoating one group associated with a small proportion of cases.

Why, then, are Memphis leaders, press reports and police ignoring larger trends and constantly singling out youth for supposedly increasing violence? Why are some proposing enforcement of a curfew that removes 17- year-olds from the public during the week between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. and on weekends by midnight, and those 16 and under between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on weekends? Do the estimated 70,000 teenage youths in Memphis deserve this attitude of no confidence?

In fact, interest groups are cherry-picking certain times, crimes and sensational incidents — a tactic that could be used to slander any group in society — to depict Memphis youth as increasingly dangerous. Those misrepresentations lead to policies like curfews, which decades of research show don’t work and often make matters worse.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis is seen at night. A Memphis police car with an officer exiting it is seen to the left of the building.
A Memphis police officer stands on Beale Street. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Memphis’ massive decline in crime and violence by youth over the last three decades is associated with less, not more, curfew enforcement. The 88% drop in youth curfew arrests in Memphis over the last 31 years (from nearly 1,000 in 1990 to just 112 in 2021) accompanied an 80% decline in other crimes by youth, including violent crime, according to FBI statistics.

“Nowhere is (the reality) gap wider than between the popularity of youth curfews and the research about their effectiveness,” observed Youth Today in a 2006 article. “The evidence does not support the argument that curfews prevent crime and victimization,” a 2003 review found. “Juvenile curfews are not effective in reducing crime and victimization,” a 2016 review of 7,000 studies by the Campbell Collaborative reported. 

“A voluminous body of research has cast strong doubts on the claims that juvenile curfew laws prevent victimization or reduce juvenile crime,” a 2022 Marshall Project review agreed. “The average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was… a slight increase in crime.” 

Monrovia, California’s daytime curfew was followed by a substantial increase in crime during curfew hours but not non-curfew hours, according to research I did over two decades. After Vernon, Connecticut, imposed a juvenile curfew in 1994, crime by youths rose sharply and, according to my research, Vernon experienced worse crime trends than comparable Connecticut cities without curfews. “Contrary to its goal of improving public safety, DC’s juvenile curfew increased the number of gunfire incidents by 69% during marginal hours,” Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy researchers reported in 2015.

Repeal of Austin, Texas’ 2017 curfew was followed by a substantial decrease in crimes against youth. As I reported in my 2000 book, “Framing Youth,” New Haven, Connecticut abandoned curfew enforcement after negative interactions between police and youth, then implemented community policing strategies that accompanied a large crime decline. No studies have been done that show curfews work. 

It may seem counter-intuitive that removing youths from the public does not reduce crime or protect youths. In fact, curfews are bad policy because communities benefit from more youth in public places, where their presence counteracts the empty streets that promote crime. Our analysis of hundreds of curfew citations found that curfews waste police time arresting law-abiding youth and exacerbate community tensions. Although African Americans comprise two-thirds of Memphis’ youth, they make up five-sixths of curfew arrests

Understanding these realities requires a major shift in public attitudes away from fear of today’s diverse young people as violent, criminal threats and toward viewing them as valued citizens whose broader participation the city should welcome.

Mike Males is senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

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