‘getting the dirtbags off the streets’ – curfews and other solutions to juvenile crime

infed archives

Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith. Reprinted with permission from Youth and Policy 52: 1-14, 1996.

A widespread belief is circulating in America and Britain that young people are in some way turning feral; that an escalating proportion are involved in serious and petty crime, and other assorted antisocial activities. As Melanie Phillips put it there is ‘growing concern that our children are running out of control’ (The Late Show, BBC 2 16 May 1994).

Not only journalists looking for a headline talk in such alarmist terms. ‘Futurologists’ such as Mulgan and Wilkinson (1995) have similar concerns. They coined the term ‘underwolves’ to characterise what they claim are a growing band of young people ‘disconnected from society’ who increasingly threaten the social order. Academics can also be cited. Rutter and Smith (1995) contend that, even after every conceivable allowance is made for flaws in the collection and interpretation of the data, the rate of recorded crime committed by young people in Britain has increased tenfold since 1950. This is not a uniquely British phenomena.

In all developed countries except Japan there have been very large increases in the level of recorded crime since the Second World War … crimes that make up the bulk of all those officially recorded, that is robbery, theft, burglary, assault and damage to property, are mainly committed by teenagers and young adults in their twenties (Smith 1995: 389).

Politicians, especially after high profile events such as the Bolger murder are equally prone to join the chorus. They vie to convince a cynical public that, if given the chance, they will impose discipline on an increasingly recalcitrant youth where others have failed (Stenson and Factor 1995).

In the United States the language used and the fears portrayed tend to be even more alarmist. Janet Reno the Attorney General warned in 1995: ‘Unless we act now to stop young people from choosing a life of violence and crime, the beginning of the 21st century could bring levels of violent crime to our community that far exceed what we have experienced’ (quoted in Thomas 1995). Influential academics share her pessimism. Predictably underclass theorists such as Murray (1984) and Wilson (1987) peddle a vision of escalating youthful crime, drug taking and unrestrained promiscuity which having decimated the neighbourhoods of the poor, will if unrestrained obliterate the very fabric of American society. Others drawn from the Libertarian Right (Fukuyama 1992) to the Liberal Left (Galbraith 1992; Jencks 1992), as well as the New Communitarians (Etzioni 1993) readily identify underclass youth as the pre-eminent threat to political and social stability. As Lerner (1995: see also Wooden 1995: Hamburg 1992: Prothrow-Stith 1991) explains:

America is hanging over a precipice. Unless dramatic and innovative action is taken soon, millions of our nations’ children and adolescents – the human capital on which America must build its future – will fall into an abyss of crime and violence, drug and alcohol use and abuse, unsafe sex, school failure, lack of job preparedness, and feelings of despair and hopelessness … I believe that the breadth and depth of the problems besetting our nation’s youth, families, and communities exist at historically unprecedented levels.

Analysis such as this fuels and reflects a public concern which has spawned a remarkable array of policies designed to manage ‘the youth crisis .. the biggest problem facing the nation’ (Colley 1995: 20).

Unlike Britain the USA has a constitution which protects not only the rights of the citizen but elected local government from undue interference by the Federal government. Consequently states and individual cities, towns and counties possess a freedom to initiate policy which those living in centralised states such as the United Kingdom can barely comprehend. Local communities, provided they don’t flout the Constitution, have an almost unfettered right to make laws and organise services with respect to those areas which most directly impinge upon the daily lives of the population. The result is a bewildering array of policy options, coexisting not just between states, but within them. Widespread concern regarding crime, and juvenile offending in particular, appears to be producing a control culture buttressed by a burgeoning array of legislation often specifically directed at young people.

America’s war on youth crime

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 produced an administration determined to be seen to tackle violent crime. Legislation such as the Armed Career Criminal Act (1984) and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act (1984) generated heavier sentencing, changes in the definition of insanity to enable easier conviction, expansion of Federal law enforcement agencies and a new prison building programme. Within this package was legislation unambiguously fashioned to control the movement and drinking habits of young people. States were given two years to raise their legal drinking ages to 21. Any failure to comply would cost them 15 per cent of the Federal contribution towards highway construction and maintenance. Twelve states, even before the legislation was signed, had gone further, imposing night driving curfews on young people (Merry 1984).

The enthusiasm of some states for adopting ‘control policies’ activated a large scale prison building programme. It was based on a belief that ‘prisons worked’, if only because they kept ‘bad guys out of circulation’ (Irwin 1994). The consensus around this view was revealed in almost unanimous legislative support for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. To an extent California has for the past decade set the pace and the 1994 Act passed with the backing of a Democrat President and a Republican legislature incorporated many policies first introduced there. Referenda and powerful pressure groups in California promoted an unprecedented prison building programme and a plethora of crime control measures. Between 1984 and 1991 more than 1,000 new criminal statutes, virtually all of which lengthened prison sentences or upgraded misdemeanours to felonies, were enacted. Simultaneously courts enforced far stricter monitoring of probationers and parolees which sent tens of thousands back to prison. Between 1984 and 1992 the prison population of California went from 22,000 to 106,000 and is still rising (Mendel 1995). More recently the state adopted Law AB971 under which a second serious felony attracts double the existing prison sentence, and a third three times the usual sentence or 25 years to life, whichever is the greater. This is the infamous ‘three strikes and out policy’ endorsed by Clinton and incorporated in the 1994 Act. AB971 also reduces the time allowed off sentences in recognition of work or good behaviour from 50 to 20 per cent. To accommodate a burgeoning prison population California will open 18 more prisons before the decade ends.

Similar policies have been adopted elsewhere. Colorado and New Hampshire have increased their prison population by an even faster rate while others have lowered the age of responsibility and reintroduced capital punishment. Inevitably such measures are putting more and more young Americans, some as young as 16, on Death Row. Neither the population of the prisons or Death Row reflect the demographic make-up of the host community. Young African-Americans and Latinos are four to eight times more likely to be arrested for serious crimes than Whites depending on the location (Blumstein 1982: Langan 1991: Smith 1995). Whatever the explanation for this disparity – poverty, family breakdown or racism within law enforcement agencies – the reality is that today more young black males are in prison than in college (Black 1990). This is no minor achievement given that the take-up rate for higher education is twice that of the UK. Approximately one in four African-American males between the ages of 20 and 29 are currently incarcerated, on probation or on parole (Prothrow-Stith 1991).

Prison as a means of curtailing the seemingly inexorable growth in crime has not only acquired political and popular endorsement but also the support of some academic researchers. The National Academy of Sciences Panel on Criminal Justice concluded that between 1975 and 1989 the increase in the prison population had prevented between 10 to 15 per cent of violent crime (Roth 1994). Block (1994) is even more bullish, arguing that the 10 states which expanded their prison populations the fastest in the last decade experienced a 20 per cent plus decline in overall crime rates, compared with a nine per cent rise in the 10 states where incarceration increased the least. Although this relationship has been vigorously questioned by some writers (see for example Mendel 1995) perhaps the most important point is that more and more Americans believe control and deterrence are working and are voting accordingly. Voting, that is, for more police to catch the criminals, who will eventually fill the prisons, and for laws and regulations to control the young people who it is widely believed are committing the bulk of the crime (Jordan and Arnold 1995).

The control and regulation of young people has taken a number of forms. One has been a relentless attempt to impose prohibition on teenagers. 21 is now the minimum age for the possession and purchase of alcohol in all states. This was strengthened by the 1995 National Highway Bill which again financially penalised states failing to impose on drivers under 21 a minimum blood alcohol level one fourth that applied to adults. These laws have served to officially banish alcohol from the college campus and encourage the exclusion of young people from clubs and entertainment venues serving liquor. Furthermore, they have encouraged the ghettoisation of young people and promoted their detachment from the ‘adult world’. Denied access to places where those over-21 go for relaxation and entertainment they are obliged to ‘hang out’ with others their age – on the streets, at cheap eating places or their room at home or on campus. It has promoted clandestine drinking, which some commentators and educationalists now consider to be approaching epidemic proportions (Wooden 1995). Sympathetic adults and unscrupulous retailers furnish supplies which are smuggled onto campus for room parties, taken home or consumed at ‘out-of-the-way’ locations.

The attitude of campus police, university authorities and local law enforcement agencies varies. Some universities clearly ‘overlook’ consumption providing no damage or disturbance results. As one Student Affairs Officer explained, he tried to leave well alone but last year had ‘closed down a Fraternity House after a 24 hour party which attracted five squad cars from the town police’ (interview). Elsewhere a student counsellor boasted that their college had zero tolerance of alcohol with an uncompromising application of the rules supported by random dorm searches and automatic suspension awaiting those caught in possession. Similar variations occur off campus. At one high school students claimed local police were continuously monitoring them, trying to catch them in possession and used agent provocateurs to catch shopkeepers selling liquor and tobacco to teenagers. As a school student put it ‘we go into the woods for a party … the cops just seem to always turn up and break it up’ (interview).

Police officers generally favoured the ban. A senior officer endorsed it, as most did, because it ‘allows us to stop and search them (teenagers) whenever we want … it’s real handy. Lets them know who’s in charge’ (interview). A junior officer, in the same force, more cynically admitted it provided leverage over the kids and meant he never had to buy a six pack of beer now for ‘it was easy to know where it is being left for pick up. You just go round and lift it before the kids do’ (interview). It is not only on the street that the young people are searched. In Massachusetts the K-9 unit of the state police have been descending on schools to carry unannounced searches ‘to pinpoint troublemakers and let students know they are watching’. Students are locked in the cafeteria while dogs search rooms, lockers and the grounds for alcohol and drugs (Associated Press 1995). In Florida the St Petersburg police tried a different approach. They enrolled ‘youthful’ officers as students at a local High School as part of a sting operation. The officers after purchasing drugs and alcohol over a period of time eventually arrested eight students for dealing and numerous others for possession.

Some localities have extended the alcohol ban to tobacco. In Maine, for example, possession of tobacco by anyone under 18 is now punishable by fines of between $100 and $500, community service or both. To facilitate enforcement in one county, gangs of prisoners from the local jail cleared heavily wooded land around schools where students go smoke. Whilst in Westbrook police staged a sting to arrest teenage smokers:

Steve Lyons, a Westbrook police officer wearing plain clothes, told students smoking on public property in front of the school that he was taking pictures of them for the yearbook … The students apparently believed Lyons, continued to smoke and posed for the camera. Lyons then flashed his police badge. (McCall 1995)

Restrictions on tobacco, like those on alcohol, are defended on both health and crime prevention grounds. One Police Chief held the law to be essential because cigarette addiction kindled teenage crime:

two 12-year-old girls broke into a Fowler Road home Friday to steal cigarettes. The homeowner surprised the girls, gave chase and caught them Pickering said one of the girls explained in an interview with police, “Me and my friend really needed a cigarette.” (Hoey 1995)

Unofficially however police, without exception, justified it (often whilst breathing tobacco fumes over the interviewer) because it provided grounds for stopping and searching the ‘dirtbags’. Showing them who was the boss or as one officer put it ‘there may be a couple of gangs in town but they know we (the police) are the only one that counts’ (interview) – stop and search procedures unambiguously drive that message home.

Control is also increasingly exercised via school contracts. The most common, which are gaining a presence in Britain, comprise an agreement signed by both the parent(s) and student. This guarantees the latter will obey school rules and regulations, show respect for staff and property, attend when required, be punctual, complete assignments and not bring tobacco, alcohol, drugs or weapons onto school premises. Generalised contracts of this sort are often augmented in the United States by more far-reaching agreements signed as a prerequisite for involvement in high status or popular school-based leisure and sporting activities. Sport and other coaches often extract from students agreements that they will at no time consume or possess alcohol, drugs and tobacco and will not ‘break curfew’ by being out of the home except for approved activities during specified times. The range of sporting and leisure activities provided by almost any America school far exceeds anything encountered in Britain. A disparity which is likely to grow given the inclusion in the 1994 Crime Bill of $75 million of Federal funding for after-school programmes and a $400 million budget spread over four years to develop programmes in poor areas (Economist 1994). Specialist coaches for individual sports and cultural activities are not only employed in most schools but given high status and generous budgets. Attendance at matches and other events by other students, parents and the general public lend these a degree of prestige outsiders often find difficult to fathom. Young people tend to accept as given that membership of the squad will require attendance at training camps prior to the season commencing and training most weekdays. One sixteen year old explained how she would leave home at 04.30 to join the swimming team for training prior to school proper which commenced at 07.00. After school it was either competing yourself, watching others perform or taking part in an ‘official’ leisure activity. Finally around 17.00 it was home or to a friend’s house to complete assignments. Even then the pressure did not relent for she was required to maintain a specified grade-point average to remain in the squad. Little wonder she found ‘apart from school and my Saturday job I don’t have time for anything’ (interview).

The range of activities in schools (for example drama, music, contributing to peer counselling and teaching programmes, producing the school newspaper, community work and visual and performing arts), plus the size of the sports squads means that potentially there is a place for most young people. Therefore those not involved have either ‘dropped out’ or been suspended for infringements of the rules. Studies of American high schools highlight the array of coexisting sub-cultures within them (see for example Hollingshead 1949: Coleman 1961: Grinder 1969: Lewis 1977: Schwartz 1987: Wooden 1995). The designated names, like their respective icons of style, mutate but the notion that those who retain affiliation are safe remains constant. Danger resides in distance, in being beyond control. Common-sense explanations tell us ‘good homes’ and ‘good parents’ supervise and occupy their kids – always know there whereabouts, who they are with and what they are doing. ‘Good kids’ for their part are wholeheartedly immersed in their school, as well as activities organised by churches and other ‘respectable’ groups; or doing a part-time job. As a high ranking police officer in a New England town explained ‘it is the Dirtbags who hang around. Messing up the town like they’re messing up their lives’ (interview). An opinion endorsed by James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University who attributed ‘the increasing lawless of children … to children who aren’t supervised especially after school’ (Associated Press 1995a). Juxtaposition such explanations to widespread fears regarding a perceived growth in juvenile crime and curfews have, not surprisingly, emerged as a fashionable policy option.


Youth curfews are not new in the United States. Some cities and towns have had them for decades. San Diego first introduced a juvenile curfew in 1947 but did little to enforce it until 1995. Elsewhere, as a man in his 50s explained, things were different. In the small New England town where he grew up the Fire Department siren sounded at 21.30 warning kids they had 30 minutes ‘to get on home’. Then again half an hour later ‘telling you if you weren’t the cops would pick you up. If they caught you; that is’ (interview). The idea began to attract fresh attention in the 1970s when a number of places most notably Detroit and Baltimore enforced juvenile curfews as a crime reduction measure. Detroit initiated a curfew in 1959 which was fleetingly enforced in the 1970s but allowed to fall into disuse once it had helped police control and disrupt gang activity (Starr 1983). According to Hunt and Weiner (1977) it was a success although they suspected it encouraged ‘displacement’ juvenile crime into neighbourhoods without curfews. Baltimore introduced a much more comprehensive programme with funding attached for youth centres to work with violators. They and their parent(s) not only faced the prospect of fines, community service and probation but were often forced to attend centres for compulsory family therapy. An initiative defended by advocates of the programme on the grounds that ‘violators of the curfew law are teenagers who do not have a satisfying relationship with their parents’ (Plotkin and Elias 1977: 525).

During the 1980s a gradual increase in the number of authorities introducing or reactivating juvenile curfews can be discerned. Post 1990 the pace quickened and ‘curfew fever’ swept America as politicians sought to ‘appear tougher on crime’ (Blumner 1994: 41). Currently thousands of small communities and three-quarters of America’s 77 largest cities have curfews (Ruefle and Reynolds 1995). Hawaii is the first to have a state-wide curfew but Florida, California and New Jersey are deliberating whether to follow suit. Curfews are characteristically justified because they:

  • protect juveniles from becoming the victims of crime:
  • reduce the likelihood that juveniles will engage in criminal activity; and
  • assist parents in carrying out their responsibility to supervise their children.

Details vary, but most curfew regimes apply to those 17 and under and run from 22.30 through to 06.30. A growing number are being supplemented with daytime curfews operating during school hours – usually 09.00 to 14.30. However this is not always required as many localities have strict truancy ordinances allowing police to pickup anyone of school age out and about during term time. The decision of localities to introduce juvenile curfews has been challenged in the courts. As a consequence a number were withdrawn and re-written. This happened in Washington D. C. where the courts found the 1989 curfew to have violated the first Amendment Rights’ of young people to freedom of speech … to assemble … and association’ and the equal protection component of the fifth amendment since ‘it irrationally distinguished between juveniles and non-juveniles’ (Horowitz 1991: 381-2). By 1995 these objections had been overcome and Washington acquired the curfew it had sought for so long (Janofsky 1995). The ordinance adopted by Dallas has survived challenges in courts up to and including the Supreme Court consequently many are using it as a template (Bureau of National Affairs 1993). Amongst these are Bridgton (Maine) which recently introduced one covering ‘persons under the age of 18’. It applies to all young people loitering, walking, driving or riding about in a public place including not just the streets but also common areas ‘in and about apartment buildings, office buildings, hospitals, schools, shops, and places of entertainment’. To comply with court judgements exceptions are allowed if the minor is:

  • accompanied by their parent or guardian;

  • involved in an emergency;

  • engaged in an employment activity, or on the way to or from an employment activity, without any detour or stop except as necessary to drop off or pick up a co-employee;

  • an errand directed by a parent or guardian, without detour or stop;

  • on the sidewalk abutting the minor’s home;

  • attending a school, religious or governmental activity, which is supervised by adults, or travelling to or from such a school, religious, or governmental activity without detour or stop;

  • attending a recreational activity sponsored by the Town of Bridgton, a civic organisation, or similar entity, which is supervised by adults, or travelling to or from such an activity without detour or stop;

  • exercising rights protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution;

  • married, or otherwise legally emancipated.

Although many curfew regimes, like Bridgton, rely solely on fines and court orders to achieve the desired result, some communities have linked implementation to substantive youth programmes. San Antonio, for example, introduced a curfew in 1991 and simultaneously raised spending on youth social and support programmes by $2 million. Some of the funds were allocated to basketball and social events designed to offer ‘prosocial’ late night activities and prevent violations. Or to functions taking place earlier in the evening to encourage alternative ‘lifestyles’. Participants are also offered the incentive of discounts on food and apparel in local shops as well as advice, information and job training programmes (Banerjee 1994; Ruelfle and Reynolds 1995).

Whatever the format curfews appear popular. Police officers sometimes seem sceptical that sufficient resources will be allocated for to ensure implementation but nevertheless generally favour their introduction. Believing, as the police spokesperson for Hartford (New Jersey) explained, it ‘removes juveniles from harm’s way, and it also removes them from participation in the drug scene and prostitution’ (Dettmer 1993). Or as the Police Chief of a New England town put it they were something of a last resort:

If we don’t do something, and do it soon this country is going to fall apart. We have got to defeat crime before it defeats us. If the police don’t do it people are going to start taking the law into their own hands. If I need a curfew to stop the kids wrecking this town that’s ok with me and the rest of the citizens around here. We need to get those dirtbags off the streets. And the curfew is doing just that. (interview)

Some youth orientated businesses have sought to legally obstruct introduction (Russell 1993) but overall business has been a major advocate. Moves for a state-wide curfew in Florida emanated from the damage wrought to the tourist trade by the killing of a British tourist by four teenagers (Rohter 1993). In Austin enforcement was welcomed after it produced an immediate 15 per cent improvement in sales as high spending adults replaced low income juveniles on the streets (Banerjee 1994). Politicians have been similarly enthusiastic. In New Jersey curfew legislation was passed by both Houses without dissent (King 1993). Apart from challenges in the courts by ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) affiliated groups opposition appears to have been minimal. In New England towns where votes have been taken on whether or not to introduce a curfew support, one is continually told, has been overwhelming in favour.

Rightly or wrongly the enthusiasm for curfews seems to flow from a widely held belief that they work. Certainly the evidence appears, at first sight, conclusive. In Houston the crime rate apparently fell in the two years following introduction by 22 per cent (Campbell 1993). New Orleans, with possibly the strictest of all curfews obliging young people to be off the streets during weekdays by 20.00, claims a drop of 29 per cent in armed robbery, a 29 per cent fall in auto theft and 26 per cent fewer murders (Morial 1995). In San Jose a curfew coinciding with school hours has, we are told, reduced daytime burglaries by 70 per cent (Wilce 1994), whilst in Dade County (Florida) the police report 39 per cent fewer robberies of tourists post implementation (Economist 1994).

Yet, such claims have to be treated with some care. Blumner (1994: 41) has argued ‘there is absolutely no empirical evidence that curfews are effective’. But doubts such as this are likely to count for little when set besides the claims of ebullient supporters such as the Mayor of New Orleans who after two years holds:

the statistics prove our curfew is working. This new law is keeping youth off the streets and out of trouble. It is helping families be more responsive to one another and more responsible to their communities. (Morial 1995)

Importing into the UK

As we have seen, influential American commentators believe a combination of tough policing, tough sentencing and tough jails is working. Certainly the crime rate nationally has fallen. British policy makers are showing mounting interest. Jeffreys (1996) reporting from New York, where the police assert they have ‘taken back’ the city ‘block by block’ and the murder rate has returned to below the 1973 level, tells us:

Last month the Metropolitan Police were here, riding around Harlem with the NYPD. In August officials from the Home Office paid a visit to the Bronx. Next month the Met will be back again, to study weapons control. In the past year more than 10 MPs have spent time in what was a world class crime zone.

At one level such enthusiasm is strange. American social policy has been almost an unbroken catalogue of failure. That the USA may at last be achieving a marginal reversal of historic trends which have seen crime statistics spiral ever upwards for decades is noteworthy. However, rather than seeking to copy policies which have achieved what may be only a temporary respite we should be seeking to learn from the appalling mistakes which generated the crime wave in the first place. We should be asking why, even after the current improvement, they still have a murder rate 10 times our own; why they have two per cent of their male population in prison compared to our 0.3 per cent; and why their prison population is set to double within the next decade putting one in 25 of their male population behind bars.

Gross inequalities of income; probably the worst welfare provision to be encountered in any democratic industrialised nation; and a pervading atmosphere of brutality and violence (which cultivates a debilitating fear of public space and strangers amongst the general population) are, like the crime wave they feed, not worthy of envy. Only a Conservative government infatuated with the prospect of removing all impediments to the free play of the market could avoid questioning why the United States needs to introduce the Draconian measures it has, and focus attention on their failures rather than their Lilliputian achievements in this area.

Already the UK government has imported the Boot Camps – the first (Thorn Cross Young Offenders Institute) opens this year. As is par for the course, inconvenient research has been ignored. The American Boot Camps have not reduced the reoffending rates of their graduates in comparison to similar offenders released from prisons or placed on probation (MacKenzie and Souryal 1994). We also have, at the time of writing, a Home Secretary who believes prison works claiming ‘it deters many people from committing crime. And it protects the public from danger’ (Howard 1995: 3). To prove the point he is intent on extending mandatory sentencing and a ‘three strikes and out’ policy which will guarantee an explosion in the prison population. We already have truant roundup programmes in operation (Jeffs and Smith 1994) and all-party support for school contracts. Finally, the Government has signalled it’s intention to transform the Probation Service into an American style parole agency and have proposed payment by results for probation officers. All that now remains to complete the package is the adoption of the juvenile curfew.

Juvenile curfews may well surface as a vote-winning policy during the forthcoming election. UK politicians, like their American counterparts, would find them ‘appealing crime-fighting tools because they’re easy to invoke, they sound tough, and they are popular with the electorate’ (Banerjee 1994). In the context of an electorate where fear of crime tops the list of ‘life worries’ (Home Office 1996) anything which indicates a political determination to ‘reclaim the streets’ (Jack Straw put it) will prove tempting. Curfews have already been piloted by one Labour controlled authority, North Tyneside. The experiment collapsed partly because the police were reluctant on legal grounds to hold the children they picked up in custody. Consequently they were obliged to ferry them to where their parent(s) were. Also because parent(s) and youth workers were unwilling to co-operate, for as a community worker explained the appointed time was ‘so ridiculously early kids were being lifted on their way home from the youth club and classes’ (interview). Little should be read into this failure. Supported by legislation which removed any ambiguities regarding the legal position of the police and bolstered it with fines providing a serious deterrent it is possible to envisage both them and the public giving juvenile curfews a cautious welcome. Some community and youth workers, especially if they are offered a counselling and support role, might be delighted to fall in line. An orientation that could be strengthened with the realisation that within curfew regimes there can be a greatly enhanced role for youth provision by local governments, schools and voluntary organizations. Youth workers and youth organizations in the United States have been quick to take advantage of the situation; and the willingness of some UK workers to collaborate with Truancy Watch programmes in areas such as Staffordshire and Newcastle indicates some will go wherever the money draws them. Finally traders and local authorities anxious to increase in the comfort factor for others, notably senior citizens, who may feel threatened by the presence of groups of teenagers hanging around shopping arcades. (Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1994) are unlikely to contest the introduction of curfews.

The case against

If juvenile curfews, limited or general, are proposed then arguing that they are ineffective on the basis of the American experience will not be easy. As a short-term crime reduction measure they may well be productive, although this may not be the case over longer periods of time, say three or four years. Baltimore which has had a curfew for nearly twenty years now has double the national average of juvenile arrests for assault (Bannerjee 1994). Reading too much into such data is risky and does little to counteract the overriding impression that curfews are a success story.

All the data presented by advocates of curfews is suspect and partial. Despite ‘large number of youths arrested for curfew violations’ (Ruefle and Reynolds 1995: 351) there is still no recent sustained empirical research on the impact of curfews. What is more there is the ever-present danger that like is not being compared with like. Curfews may be successful over a short period precisely because of the high rate of offending in some areas. In other words, the problems are so great that more Draconian measures – through their shock value – have an impact. Yet what works in the special circumstances of many United States’ cities and towns is unlikely apply in the same way to UK experiences.

Swapping critiques, however justified, on the methodology of data collation or the way it is brandished, will, judging by the American experience, have scant impact on a debate. Especially when it is conducted in the current climate where any policy offering a promise, however slight, of success and an aura of toughness is greeted with enthusiasm by politicians of both major parties. Resisting curfews on the basis that they are ineffective is unlikely to be an option.

Ignoring youth curfews for the present on the assumption they will fail and ultimately fall into disuse is not a viable option. Bad laws rarely vanish so painlessly. Rather they linger to be employed by the police and courts at their discretion – in particular at given times and in specific localities to control ‘unpopular’ minorities. The use of archaic statutes to make the lives of New Age Travellers intolerable or harass Black young people in public areas illustrate how illiberal laws once enacted are extremely difficult to remove. Sadly they do not fade away. Indeed, if the American experience teaches us anything it is that enthusiasm for curfews is cyclical. Once formulated they will almost certainly resurface with monotonous regularity to plague succeeding generations. It is best to resist them from the onset – but why and on what grounds?

First, juvenile curfews are discriminatory and fundamentally wrong. Wrong because they criminalise perfectly legal and acceptable behaviour on the grounds of the age. Walking the street, standing in public places talking to friends, moving quietly and peaceably from one place to another, going to a late night movie are all harmless activities which should never be criminalised – whatever the time of day. To select young people and criminalise them for doing what the rest of the population can freely do is doubly discriminatory. Youth curfews identify young people as an enemy within, a dangerous other, therefore curfews must be seen as morally repugnant and divisive. As Harriet Bradley (1996) has argued, age is the neglected dimension of stratification. Similar legal intervention which criminalised individuals on the basis of their sex or ethnicity would not be acceptable in a civilised society and discrimination on the basis of age should also be rejected as unjust and indefensible.

Second, curfews would sanction, even encourage, discrimination. Abundant evidence already exists to show the ‘stop and search’ powers and ‘adversarial policing’ are disproportionately employed against young Black and working class males. It requires scant imagination to envisage those localities where the curfew would be most energetically enforced or those individuals who would be most frequently apprehended for violating it. As Loader (1996: 25-26) has shown, prevailing public discourses around youth have helped to feed practices that are ‘concerned with both the routine supervision of young people’s use of public space, and with a paternalistic pedagogy geared to the production of “respectable” citizens’. Curfews provide a further mechanism by which young people – and particularly those who occupy public space in ways that do not fit dominant ideas about what is ‘proper’ or ‘safe’ – become ‘police property’ (ibid.: 22 – 29).

Third, it is often argued in defence of curfews that given young people commit a disproportionately high number of crimes this measure would protect potential victims, young and old alike. This is not, we believe, a compelling enough justification for setting aside the rights of young people. The imposition of a blanket curfew would punish far more innocent than guilty individuals. It also isolates age as the determining factor rather than say gender (which is a far more significant indicator of recorded criminal behaviour). It is difficult to see how a curfew on young women could be justified on this basis. Finally, if the safety and comfort of potential victims is a criteria then a far more powerful case exists statistically for a curfew to be imposed on all males over 16 and under 35 than on young people below 16.

Fourth, youth curfews are always championed as a way of protecting young people from danger. At best such claims are dubious. As Horowitz shows of the twenty-six juveniles killed in the District of Columbia in 1988 when advocates of a curfew were at their most vociferous ‘not one was killed at a time or place that he or she would not have been had the curfew been in effect’ (1991: 413). Police officers also exhibit a noticeable reluctance to claim curfews reduce the consumption of drugs by young people. What they always tell you is that it takes such activities ‘off the streets’. Removing young people from the street for their own protection is as unacceptable as curfewing women for the same reason. It is the liberty of perpetrators not their actual or potential victims which should be curtailed.

If, or perhaps more likely when, the demand for juvenile curfews reaches the same intensity in the UK as it has in the United States the case against will not be readily listened to. However it will have to be put. Hopefully youth, community and other welfare workers will be willing to argue it even in the face of intense lobbying. Some of the community groups with whom they work may well perceive curfews as a way of controlling crime in their neighbourhood. Equally, many may find the youth agencies which employ them enthusiastically collaborating in the implementation of a curfew package which includes funding for ‘prosocial’ work and the counselling of violators. If so it will be fascinating to see how many will find glib excuses whereby they can overlook the manifest injustice of the legislation in order to ‘get at the funding’. If that happens we may hear a senior youth work manager parroting the defence offered by the Chief of the Metropolitan Police:

It is not our Bill it’s Parliament’s Bill and it became Parliament’s Act but, in a democracy, we have to enforce the law … Parliament has to look at laws to stop the minority of people destroying the quality of life for others. I guess the Criminal Justice Act was an attempt to do that. (Interview in Youth Clubs: April 1995)

Hopefully if we are prepared from the onset to vigorously oppose youth curfews that unedifying prospect will not come to pass.


The authors would like to thank the many police officers, youth workers, town and city administrators, teachers and high school students from Boston (Mass), Bridgton, Manchester (New Hampshire), North Tyneside (England), Port Elizabeth, Sanford, South Portland, Portland (Maine), South Portland and Westbrook who not only allowed themselves to be interviewed but also provided documentation and source material.


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