Why a Curfew Is Unnecessary

A proposed curfew would target Oakland's teenagers, but state statistics show that youth crime has plummeted in the city since the late-1990s.

Source: California Department of Justice

Although there is little evidence that youth curfews work, Councilmen Larry Reid and Ignacio De La Fuente are continuing their push for one in Oakland. The councilmen contend that it would help Oakland police combat the city’s high crime rate. But a closer look at crime statistics over the past decade reveals that teens do not appear to be the cause of Oakland’s crime problem. In fact, youth crime in Oakland has plummeted dramatically since the 1990s, declining at a faster rate than other large cities, including ones with curfews.

According to the California Department of Justice, youth crime in Oakland declined 33.4 percent from 1999 to 2008. By contrast, Long Beach, a similarly sized city that has a curfew, experienced a 12.8 percent increase in youth crime over the same period. Oakland also has a lower youth crime rate than does Long Beach, even though Oakland’s overall crime rate is higher. Reid and De La Fuente want Oakland to adopt essentially the same curfew law that Long Beach enacted in the mid-1990s.

So why are Oakland’s leaders pressing for a curfew when youth crime has declined? Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, noted that teens are often scapegoated when crime goes up. “There’s a tendency among the older generation to blame the younger generation,” Macallair said. “It’s a persistent pattern throughout history.”

In 2006, Macallair’s organization analyzed youth crime in major California cities, and found that crimes committed by teens had declined substantially since the Seventies. In addition, an analysis by this newspaper shows that six of the eight largest cities in California experienced drops in youth crime from 1999 to 2008, the latest year in which comparable DOJ stats were available. The only two that showed youth crime increases were Long Beach and San Jose, both of which have curfews.

Overall, youth crime dropped 11.2 percent among the state’s eight most populous cities from 1999 to 2008. (Oakland is the eighth largest city in California, according to the Census.) And Macallair’s group found that youth crime nosedived 50.9 percent from 1976 to 2005 in those same cities. In other words, youth crime has been going down rapidly for the past four decades — even though there is a public perception that kids are increasingly breaking the law. “The irony here is that this is the best behaved generation on record — at least since the 1950s and ’60s,” Macallair said of current teens.

In an interview, Councilwoman Libby Schaaf, who voted late last week to move forward with Reid and De La Fuente’s proposal, repeated the same argument that they have used for enacting a curfew in Oakland. Schaaf said she does not view a curfew as a panacea for Oakland’s crime problems, but as another weapon that police officers need in their arsenal. “I’m open to trying this as a tool,” she said. The councilwoman, however, appeared to be unaware that Oakland’s youth crime has dropped dramatically since the late-1990s.

To be fair, Schaaf and other Oakland politicians have been under pressure to address this year’s crime spike. The Oakland Tribune editorial board and some East Bay newspaper columnists have been calling for a youth curfew over the past few months, apparently without first analyzing whether curfews are effective or necessary (see “Why Curfews Don’t Work,” 9/7). Also, it should be noted that there isn’t a lot the council can do to combat crime — other than enact new laws or slash public services and direct more money to police.

In apparent recognition of how controversial a youth curfew could be, Schaaf, Reid, and De La Fuente are now attempting to soft-pedal it. Last week, Schaaf proposed calling it a “loitering” law. In truth, however, it’s a curfew plan patterned after curfews in other cities. It would make it illegal for teens under the age of eighteen to be out in public after 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and after 11:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Schaaf also is proposing a daytime curfew from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. to deal with truants. The curfew proposal includes exemptions that, for example, allow youths to travel directly to and from their jobs. The proposal is scheduled to go before the full council on Tuesday evening, October 4.

As of early this week, it was unclear whether there were enough votes to approve a youth curfew, but crime statistics show that such a law is unnecessary. From 1999 to 2008, youth crime declined at higher rate in Oakland than in any of the state’s eight largest cities. The next closest was San Francisco, which has a curfew, but has not enforced it since the 1990s. Youth crime in San Francisco declined 29.6 percent.

Fresno was next best with a 19.1 percent drop. It also has a curfew, but doesn’t strictly enforce it. From 2004 to 2008, Fresno police made an average of 25 arrests each year for curfew/city ordinance violations. By contrast, Long Beach, which strictly enforces its curfew, tallied 538 such arrests a year over the same time.

Youth crime is measured by the number of youths that are arrested each year. The reason is that the only way to know if a teen is responsible for a crime is if a teen is arrested for perpetrating that crime. While there’s no way to know for sure if lower juvenile arrest rates mean that juvenile crime itself has declined, too, arrest reports are the only statistical way to measure youth crime rates, and no other data exists to suggest that juvenile crime rates have increased.

In 2005 and 2006, Oakland reported a very low youth crime rate, because then Police Chief Wayne Tucker de-emphasized youth arrests in the city. As the Express reported at the time, Tucker viewed youth arrests as being financially inefficient. Arresting teens can take up a lot of valuable police time as officers have to wait for parents or guardians to come get the teens, or police must book them into Alameda County Juvenile Hall in San Leandro, where they are usually released quickly, unless they’ve committed a serious crime. In 2007, Tucker then changed the department’s policy on youth arrests back to what it had been prior to 2005, and the youth crime rate stabilized.

Likewise, enforcing curfews also can waste precious police resources. In 2009, OPD estimated that arresting a youth for violating a curfew could take up to sixty minutes of an officer’s time. Critics also note that curfews have led to racial profiling in other cities, and can further harm already strained relationships between youth of color and police.

Some proponents of youth curfews say OPD will be closely monitored, but the department has a troubled history of dealing with young people of color. Recent reports in a federal case revealed that Oakland police draw and point their weapons at people at an alarming rate. And last week, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said that when he first arrived in Oakland in 2009, he was shocked to learn that officers often forced young male suspects to pull down their pants in public when being searched. Curfews, in short, have a strong potential downside, and no proven upside. Studies that take into account crime trends among adults and cities without curfews also show that there is no link between enacting a curfew and lowering crime.

In fact, youth crime has plummeted in Oakland while crime overall has shot up since the late-Nineties. The data also suggests that the city’s crime problem is being caused mostly by adults — not teens. From 1999 to 2008, violent crime jumped 37.4 percent in Oakland as youth crime went down 33.4 percent.

There is no argument that Oakland’s crime problem is out of control, but there also is no evidence that the problem is attributable to the city’s youth. In fact, it appears that the council may be on the verge of adopting a new law that would punish teens because the city’s leaders haven’t figured out how to address the crime epidemic being perpetrated by adults.