Atlantic City has finally upgraded its emergency siren system, extending its reach from the Boardwalk into its neighborhoods. The sirens will sound to alert residents of impending extreme weather and other immediate threats.
But they’ll also loudly proclaim the city’s continued use of its ill-informed, illegal and ineffective juvenile curfew.
Atlantic City adopted its ordinance in 2006, during the golden age of misguided curfew laws.
The reign of error in New Jersey began in 1992, when Gov. Jim Florio signed a law giving each municipality the power to impose a juvenile curfew.
The administration of President Bill Clinton helped get the ball rolling the wrong way nationwide with a report recommending curfews to address “rising juvenile delinquency and victimization rates.” Clinton in 1996 authorized $75 million to help local governments enact curfews and other ordinances intended to fight crime. By 2009, curfews were the law in 84% of American cities mid-sized and larger.
Since then, curfew enforcement repeatedly has been challenged in court and consistently has been found unconstitutional. Their use never has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court nor the supreme court of any state.
A New Jersey Appellate Court invalidated an upstate municipal curfew law in 2004, saying such laws “criminalize the innocent activities” of teenagers. Egg Harbor Township repealed its curfew after a judge ruled it was unconstitutional — and after the township paid $10,000 in legal fees.
Curfew supporters argue that they help prevent young people from becoming either perpetrators or victims of nighttime crime. But the research shows otherwise.
A Brookings Institution study of the curfew in Washington, D.C., found that gunshot incidents increased by 150% when the curfew was in effect. That’s not surprising since a street with people on it tends to be a safer street, while a deserted street tends to invite crime.
The Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit that synthesizes research studies for policymakers, in 2016 examined 7,000 studies on juvenile curfews and analyzed the 12 most rigorous ones. It declared the “evidence suggests that juvenile curfews are ineffective at reducing crime and victimization.” Curfew hours on average had slightly increased crime, and curfews had no effect on crime overall. “Similarly, juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance,” Campbell said.
That result is in line with a 2003 systematic review by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, which found that “empirical studies of the impact of curfew laws failed to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization.”
Curfews are excellent, though, at fostering racial injustice. They make black youths 269% more likely than white youths to be arrested for a curfew violation, according to the FBI. And they make parents of curfew violators subject to fines of up to $1,000 in many municipalities, including Atlantic City. Fines for curfew violations, of course, also are ultimately unenforceable.
We’ve been proclaiming for more than 15 years that juvenile curfews are unconstitutional, don’t reduce juvenile crime or victimization, can’t be enforced in court and should be abandoned. Every time the Atlantic City sirens sound at 9:30 p.m. ahead of its juvenile curfew, consider it a reminder that city officials either don’t know the law and the research, or don’t care.