Do youth curfews reduce crime?

As U.S. cities grapple with crime, many have initiated curfews for youths, betting that if they can keep young people inside at night, they will have fewer problems.

But do curfews really work? New research suggests they don’t, and in fact may be counterproductive to public safety.

In a working paper, Profs. Jillian B. Carr of Purdue University and Jennifer L. Doleac of the University of Virginia tracked gun violence during curfew times in poor sections of Washington, D.C. They found that gunshot incidents increased during curfew hours.

The Wall Street Journal recently spoke with Dr. Doleac about her research. Here are edited excerpts:

WSJ: What inspired you to conduct this study?

DR. DOLEAC: There is no empirical evidence that curfews work, but voters and legislators have it in their mind that juveniles shouldn’t be out that late.

WSJ: What is the most surprising thing you learned?

DR. DOLEAC: That juvenile curfews are counterproductive for public safety. When the curfew switches [from midnight to 11 p.m. in Washington in September] gun violence goes up during the 11 p.m. hour. Because nothing else changes suddenly during that hour, and we don’t see similar effects in other hours of the day, we can be sure the increase is due to the curfew.

WSJ: Why do you think gun violence goes up?

DR. DOLEAC: Having people around helps deter crime by increasing the likelihood that an offender will get caught. Curfews incentivize law-abiding citizens to be at home instead of out on the streets.

Also, enforcing the curfew distracts police from doing other things. If those things were effective, then switching police attention to curfew enforcement will increase crime.

WSJ: What should be the takeaway from this study?

DR. DOLEAC: All else being equal, I’d hope police would err on side of caution and end these curfews.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.