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Should Young People Be Banished from Public?

The fervor among a growing array of interests and institutions for extending “age apartheid” (as San Jose State University’s Anthony Bernier terms it) is becoming more alarming. Harvard Kennedy School, the National Academy of Sciences, and other academics are floating notions to redefine persons under age 25 functionally as “children” subject to newly restrictive regimes.

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It is not just youth involved in the justice system who are affected. Broad, mass restrictions such as curfews (which banish youth from being in public during certain hours) and graduated driver licensing, or GDL (which includes lengthy probation periods, bans on nighttime driving, and driving with peers for new drivers age 16-17) severely restrict young people’s basic rights. Strangely, teen-control measures typically gain momentum not in times of rising crisis, but long after youth problems had been declining on their own. In California, both traffic death and criminal arrest rates among 16-17 year-olds and 18-19 year-olds had been falling rapidly for years before the GDL took effect in 1998 or curfew enforcement peaked in 1999.

That is, curfews and GDL are not about demonstrable benefits for public or youth safety (as a Campbell Library literature review on curfew effects is the latest to find), but simply about removing teenagers from public spaces. Two recently published studies provide examples of serious mistakes common to studies that have built support for these measures.

The first, by economist Patrick Kline (2012) evaluated 92 cities from 1980-2004 and reported a “sharp decrease in the relative arrest rates of youth subject to the curfew in the years following enactment.” By “relative,” Kline means that crime fell sharply among “the oldest age-group in a city subject to the curfew law” (generally ages 16 or 17) compared to “the youngest age-group exempt from the curfew” (generally ages 17/18 up to age 24).

Unfortunately, Kline did not evaluate crime changes in cities without curfews. As a result, his study was not of curfew effects but simply cited common statistics showing crime has fallen more among younger than older ages all over the country, in cities with and without curfews alike (Table 1).

Source: FBI (1980-2016).

The second study which incorrectly deemed youth control measures as successful was published by two economists. They reviewed the 1995-2010 period and found “criminal participation among teenagers ages 16 through 17 decreased by 4 to 6 percent relative to young adults following the implementation of GDL.” Unfortunately, the authors omitted a significant finding of several long-term, multi-aged studies: GDL reduces traffic crashes among younger teens at the expense of promoting even more traffic crashes among older teens and young adults. Whether GDL brings a similar shift of some criminal arrests from younger to older ages is an important tradeoff the authors failed to explore.

Moreover, as in the Kline study, the GDL researchers quantified the purported larger reduction in criminal arrests of 16-17 year-olds after GDL takes effect in relation to the smaller arrest declines of older teens. To reiterate Table 1’s pattern, arrest rates fell considerably faster among younger teens than older teens all across the country, regardless of when or where GDLs or nighttime curfews took effect.

Interestingly, the authors reported that the mechanisms through which GDL purportedly prevents traffic crashes and crime among 16-17 year-olds are not attributable to “improved teen driving quality as a result of GDL.” Rather, any benefits stemming from GDL derive from provisions that effectively reduce “teen driving prevalence by 5 percent during the day and by 15 percent during the night” (see Karaca-Mandic & Ridgeway, 2010), reflecting the “important role of nighttime curfews in limiting teen nighttime driving.” That limiting, however, is associated with an unfortunate side effect. By reducing younger-teens’ driving, GDL renders them less experienced, more dangerous drivers at age 18 or 19 than they would have been if allowed to acquire more driving experience at ages 16 and 17.

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But real-life effects may not matter to many leaders who view young people as akin to environmental toxins and banning them from public a value in and of itself. “While studies might see no change in crime statistics, residents weigh quality-of-life issues that don’t show up in the statistics,” concludes a Youth Today report of a North Carolina suburb experiencing an influx of Latino and African Americans. “When it comes to curfew decisions, data are no match for feeling safe.”

Translated, this means that even if FBI statistics show youth commit only a tiny fraction of violence and crime, and comprehensive research shows curfews accomplish nothing useful, political leaders privilege the “quality of life feelings” of fearful older Americans over the right of (mostly minority) young people to venture outside their homes. California’s curfew arrest pattern over the last 15 years is telling: four-fifths of those arrested for curfew violation are youth of color.

Those concerned with sound science and young people’s basic rights in a diverse society should work to reverse elders’ ongoing fear and hostility toward younger people, not take advantage.

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Deza, M. Litwok, D. (2016). Do Nighttime Driving Restrictions Reduce Criminal Participation Among Teenagers? Evidence From Graduated Driver Licensing. Journal of Policy Analysis & Management; Spring 2016, Vol. 35, Issue 2, p. 306-332. Quotes are from p. 308, 309, 301.

Karaca-Mandic, P. Ridgeway, G. (2010). Behavioral impact of Graduated Driver Licensing on teenager driving risk and exposure. Journal of Health Economics, Vol. 29, p. 48–61.

Kline, P. (2011). The Impact of Juvenile Curfew Laws on Arrests of Youth and Adults. American Law and Economics Review; Spring 2012, Vol. 14, Issue 1, p. 44-67. Quotes are from pp. 14-15 and Table II.

Wilson, D.P. Gill, C. Olaghere, A. McClure, D. (2016). Juvenile Curfew Effects on Criminal Behavior and Victimization. A Campbell Systematic Review.  2016:03. Crime and Justice Coordinating Group, March 2016.

Keywords: crime trends, curfew, drivers license, Juvenile justice, Mike Males, status offense, teenage brain, youth crime, youth justice

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice, Political Landscape

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