The ordinance should be rejected, if for no other reason than the fact that there is no evidence that juvenile curfews are effective, either at reducing crime or at protecting minors from victimization. The staff report (PDF) on the item offers little in the way of evidence for the successful impacts of juvenile curfews, and instead relies on emotional appeal and questionable statistics to argue for adoption:
Had a curfew ordinance been in effect when these incidents occurred, there is a possibility that a life could have been saved or a young woman would be spared from the vices of the sex trade. This possibility alone, as well as the aforementioned successes from other cities, and the fact that 29% of juveniles are victims of violent crimes duing these hours, demonstrates a nexus between juveniles and violent crime and creates a compelling interest for the City of Oakland to implement a curfew ordinance.
First, let’s look at those other cities. Three examples of cities with curfew ordinances are given: Dallas, Denver, and Long Beach. Dallas offers the strongest support, with a claim that juvenile arrests during curfew hours during a three month period after the ordinance was adopted were 14.6% lower than during the same three month period the previous year. Without comparable data on the overall crime rate during the same periods, it’s impossible to form an opinion on how much the curfew had to do with the reduction, although it’s worth noting that the ordinance is still in effect, and juvenile crime rates in Dallas have been rising for the past six years. (The City is now considering adopting a daytime curfew (PDF) to combat the problem.) No crime or victimization data is provided for Denver. In the Long Beach example, a significant reduction in juvenile crime is noted for the period immediately after the adoption of the curfew ordinance in 1993, but I was unable to find any such claim in the cited source for the statistic (PDF). The report further notes a 22% reduction in juvenile victims of violent crimes during the summer of 2008 versus summer of 2007, but since the ordinance was in effect for both years, it isn’t clear what the reduction has to do with the curfew law.
There’s not a ton of research out there on the effectiveness of juvenile curfews, and most of it is stuck behind firewalls, so I unfortunately can’t link to it. I found one publicly available survey (PDF) that examines the available evidence. I’ve reviewed most of the studies referenced in the article, and the characterizations of their findings in this report are accurate. So what does the body of literature show? Well:
By and large, however, the research fails to demonstrate that curfews produce a decrease in juvenile crime. If one tallies all the relations between curfew laws and crime examined in these studies, researchers report no significant change in crime rates in roughly three out of four instances. When significant changes in crime rates are observed, about half the studies show increases while the other half show decreases.
Given the unpromising outcomes of curfew laws in other cities, and given that Oakland’s curfew enforcement is proposed as a special operation only once per month (for a cost of $75,000 for the year), it’s difficult to imagine how the new law would have even a minor impact on either juvenile crime or juvenile victimization. Of course, there’s another reason to institute youth curfews, that, while mentioned only in passing in tonight’s staff report, is almost certainly a strong motivator in the minds of those who would support the ordinance.
A curfew provides police officers with an additional tool during nighttime patrols. Under the proposed ordinance, officers would have a reason to question anyone they see on the street who looks young enough to be in violation. Theoretically, this questioning could lead to detecting some other crime. Although the literature on the effectiveness of curfews for such purposes is limited, what evidence we do have is again, not promising. Survey says:
In general, the available research indicates that curfew laws are not an efficient mechanism for uncovering criminal behavior. Furthermore, most of the criminal activity that is uncovered by curfew enforcement consists of minor offenses or curfew-related infractions.
So if curfews don’t reduce crime and they don’t reduce juvenile victimization and they don’t lead to detection of serious crimes, will the Council decide to pass on this one? I doubt it. Experience shows us that implementation and effectiveness are rarely major factors in political decision making in Oakland. As the aforementioned article notes, curfew laws enjoy widespread popularity among the public, and:
The seduction of commonsense reasoning sometimes is too strong to be swayed by scientific evidence, which by nature is always open to reconsideration.
I understand that it’s tempting to pass helpful-sounding legislation even if we don’t actually think it will, you know, help. After all, the Council and the Police Department are both under constant pressure to appear to be doing something to address the crime problem. It’s easy to look at something like a curfew law as harmless. After all, when something only costs $75,000, why not just do it for the sake of saying you did something, whether you think it’s going to work or not.
But it’s important to realize that there are additional, less measurable costs, to repeatedly adopting laws that are either not enforced, or selectively enforced. The existence and selective enforcement of such ordinances erodes respect for the law in general. In a City so rife with lawlessness as Oakland, it’s probably a good idea to at least try to avoid exacerbating the problem.
But more troubling is the fact that, as if we didn’t already know, recent events have reminded us that large numbers of Oakland youth are convinced that the police are simply out to get them. Whether that’s true or not, selective enforcement for minor infractions like curfew violation will tend to further strengthen this belief, increasing the already troublesome rift between law enforcement and much of Oakland’s juvenile population. And that’s something we really can’t afford.