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City-given Curfews: Ethical or unethical?

By: Emmie Wolf-Dubin

On December 1st, 2022 it was announced that the Philadelphia city council approved a city-wide permanent curfew for anyone below seventeen, which was initially just supposed to be for the summer. If you are ages 14-17, you must be home from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. If you are younger than 14, you must be home from 9:30 p.m. until 6 a.m. This rule is made to make sure kids are safe, given the crime rates in the city. Sure, it makes sense in theory. But in practice, is it ethical?

The term ‘curfew’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “A regulation enjoining the withdrawal of usually specified persons (such as juveniles or military personnel) from the streets or the closing of business establishments or places of assembly at a stated hour.” This regulation is used in cities across America, especially during the Summer.

But in the past, these curfews had been misused and made to target racial and ethnic minorities. During the Jim Crow era, Southern governments imposed curfews on African Americans. During World War II, the Western Defense Command on the West Coast imposed curfews on Japanese Americans. Today, though, that isn’t the issue. Over 400 cities across America, according to the National Youth Rights Association, have instituted a curfew for those under 18 - including major cities, such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Nashville, and New York City. Whether or not it is ethical to restrict kids to their homes after a certain hour, it definitely is a growing practice across America.

That being said, how exactly is it enforced? According to CriminalDefenseLawyer, punishments can include fines and community service. In some cities, there is a warning-detention-release system, meaning juveniles get a warning, are then detained should the pattern continue, and subsequently released. There are some places where, if a child is continually found in violation of a curfew, the parent can be arrested while the child is put in a juvenile detention center.

These actions may feel a bit much and, according to a 2015 study by professors at the University of Virginia and Purdue University (which looked at the impact of youth curfews on gun violence in Washington D.C.), it is. Their analysis found the effect on public safety was “ambiguous,” and even suggested that curfews could increase the levels of violence. The study said, “We find that, contrary to its goal of improving public safety, D.C.’s juvenile curfew increases the number of gunfire incidents by 69% [during curfew hours].” So why are cities still enforcing these curfews if there is nothing to show they work? The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention said, “The stated goal of most curfew laws is twofold: to prevent juvenile crime and to protect youth from victimization.” Is this just a hopeful goal? Or is it just another unethical instance of the government overstepping?

So, is the curfew ethical? It depends on the reasoning. If it is in the pursuit of protecting kids from crime, as Philadelphia’s curfew is, then it holds some weight. The question about curfews may not be whether or not they are ethical in theoretical conversations, but rather, how they are implemented in practice?

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