Roanoke Municipal Building. Photo by Dwayne Yancey
The Roanoke Municipal Building. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Like a thermometer rising into the heat-warning zone on a July day, the digits tell an alarming story. Young people are both perpetrating and suffering from violence in increasing numbers. 

In the Virginia State Police’s Crime in Virginia 2022 report, 2,058 violent crime offenders were under 18, up from 1,489 in 2021. In 2022 there were 3,469 violent crime victims under 18, up from 3,038 the previous year. 

In an effort to protect young victims of crime, the Roanoke City Council voted on June 5 to expand the city’s curfew ordinance, placing additional restrictions on persons 13 and younger.  In May, Lynchburg adopted a curfew placing restrictions on anyone younger than 17 between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. 

These aren’t the cities’ only responses to violence by or against teens. Roanoke is offering a number of programs to get teens off the streets, and Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema has described the curfew as a “tool” in law enforcement’s toolbox.

Still, academics who study juvenile crime say that curfews, while well intended, do little to address crime.

David Myers is chair of the Criminal Justice Department at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. His research interests include juvenile justice and delinquency.

“The research is pretty clear that there’s not much, if any, effect on crimes or delinquent acts committed by juveniles, say, in response to curfews or added enforcement of curfews,” he said.

One problem with curfews is that “by the time curfews take place, it’s well after the normal times when young people are actually breaking the law. Most juvenile crimes or delinquent acts are committed afternoon, evening. During the academic year, it’s typically the after-school hours when it’s most likely. So by 10 or 11 o’clock at night, there’s relatively much less juvenile offending taking place. 

“Usually what is getting attention are the very … isolated, rare type events that are taking place that usually cause people to have great concern and push for either adding a curfew or greater enforcement.”

Roanoke, in fact, experienced a spate of late-night violence the weekend of June 24-25. Four males between 15 and 19 were either injured or killed in three separate incidents, all between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. Mayor Sherman Lea was quoted in The Roanoke Times as saying, “This was the exact cause of concern that we had.”

Lea did not respond to a request for comment on the curfew. Others who declined to respond were the Roanoke police, Roanoke’s city engagement office, the city of Lynchburg, Brenda Hale of the Roanoke NAACP and Brenda Farmer of the Lynchburg NAACP.

“In general, it’s not a good thing for young people to be out late at night,” Myers said. “Areas that have lower crime, don’t tend to have juveniles out at night. But that doesn’t mean that the curfew is actually going to have an impact on crime.”

Perhaps the most widely cited study, Myers said, is a meta-analysis published by the Campbell Collaboration, an international social science research network. “Juvenile curfew effects on criminal behavior and victimization” was published in 2016. Lead author David Wilson is a professor in the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University in Fairfax. He declined to comment for this article.

The meta-analysis reviewed 12 quantitative studies of the effects of curfews on youth criminal behavior or victimization.

“The average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive — that is a slight increase in crime — and close to zero for crime during all hours,” according to a plain-English summary of the study. “Similarly, juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance.

“However, all the studies in the review suffer from some limitations that make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. Nonetheless, the lack of any credible evidence in their favor suggests that any effect is likely to be small at best and that curfews are unlikely to be a meaningful solution to juvenile crime and disorder.”

Jennifer Doleac, who was then at the University of Virginia, was co-author, along with Jillian Carr, of a 2015 study of a curfew in Washington, D.C. 

“Juvenile curfews are a common, but extremely controversial, policy used in cities across the United States,” they wrote. “Their goal is to reduce violent crime by keeping would-be offenders and victims indoors, but their net effect on public safety is ambiguous for several reasons. They might also increase distrust between law enforcement and city residents, so it is important to understand whether they are cost-effective.

“We show that in this city, at least, the juvenile curfew policy increases the number of gunfire incidents during marginal curfew hours. This is likely due to the change in the composition of people on the streets during the hours that juveniles are incentivized to be at home … Our results suggest that curfew laws are not a cost-effective way to reduce gun violence in U.S. cities.” Now an associate professor of economics at Texas A&M, Doleac declined to comment for this article.

Another problem with curfews, according to Lindsay Semprevivo, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Radford University, is that they tend to disproportionally affect youth of color.

Robert Barnette, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, did not comment specifically on the Roanoke and Lynchburg ordinances, but said the organization opposes the Virginia statewide curfew law signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in March. That law, which went into effect July 1, authorizes local law enforcement officials to impose a 24-hour curfew during times of civil disturbance.

If curfews offer little protection, what will?

“There’s not a single answer to that,” Myers said. “So the first thing I would say, I do believe community norms and values, and what the community as a whole is emphasizing, does matter. So communities that expect as a whole, children to be home at night, kids to be supervised, parents to be taking a strong role in that, police working with community members on strengthening those norms, I do believe those things matter.

“Those things are effective, but it takes time and effort. It takes schools working with parents, as well as social services. Youth that might be out and committing crime in the community, they are often experiencing problems at home, they’re often experiencing problems at school, they’re often associating with delinquent peers, they may have individual level challenges, things like learning disabilities, or certainly school failure.

“So it’s this combination of risk factors that increase the likelihood of offending and increase the likelihood that a young person could offend, whether it’s after school, whether it’s in the evening, or whether it’s after a curfew. But those things are harder, more challenging to address, they take more resources, they take planning, they take collaboration, and it’s more of a longer-term perspective on decreasing juvenile offending.

“Curfews are not going to reduce those other risk factors.  Curfews aren’t going to reduce problems at school, curfews aren’t going to reduce problems at home. Curfews aren’t going to address individual level needs. It’s trying to do something that’s really kind of quick and simple and seems logical, but doesn’t really work well — at least, versus the things we do know work, but take more time and resources and are more over the longer term.”

“The toughest part of my job is that we can’t control human beings,” Semprevivo said. “We have to figure out human behavior, what motivates us, what can help people invest in their communities.”

Roanoke Vice Mayor Joe Cobb is chair of the city’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission, which sponsored a youth talent show against violence in March at the Jefferson Center. The event included a conflict resolution workshop.

The curfew expansion “will end at the close of August and we have requested a report on the expansion’s efforts early in September,” Cobb said.

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...