This Halloween, children younger than 16 will not be allowed outside without an adult after 7:00pm in Bonnyville, Alberta. The Halloween curfew has been around for decades, but some parents requested that the curfew time be extended an hour, or maybe two. But the mayor decided against honouring the parents’ request.
For generations, numerous places in Canada have experimented with different versions of a youth curfew. They typically apply to those under the age of 16 or 18, start between 10:00pm to 12:00am, and are in effect year-round.
Often a curfew seems to be forgotten or is unenforced, such as in Saskatoon, which has technically had a curfew since 1937. Places that have recently introduced or acknowledged a curfew include Red Deer and Strathcona County in Alberta and Killarney, Manitoba. Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta and Thunder Bay in Ontario recently considered introducing a curfew but decided against it.
When youth curfews are introduced, it is often in an effort to reduce vandalism and crimes committed by youth. It is difficult for studies to discover their effect, because it is hard to control for other factors that might affect crime levels. Nevertheless, evidence has suggested that youth curfews have not effectively prevented crime. There is some indication that crime does decrease during curfew hours in areas where a curfew is in effect, but at the same time, crime increases elsewhere or during non-curfew hours. If this is the case, then youth curfews fail to actually address mischief but simply move it somewhere else.
An important consideration is whether the problem-causing youth will obey the curfew or if only law-abiding youth will obey it. If youth are breaking laws in the first place, why would they make an exception for a curfew, particularly given that fines are often not issued? Meanwhile, law-abiding young people are in effect penalized for doing nothing wrong because they are required to stay inside.
Those who are uncomfortable with youth might prefer that they were at least in the open instead of sneaking around to evade police.
In an age where people say young people spend too much time inside watching television, why should we forbid law-abiding young citizens from going outside at night, perhaps to watch stars at a park? Youth curfews promote a false stereotype that all youth are delinquent or immature.
Municipalities should promote a positive relationship between law enforcement and their youth, rather than promote a dislike of law enforcement due to a sense of unfairness or disrespect.
If a curfew is not about reducing mischief or crime, it is about the government being a parent. Politicians may not like to paint the by-law as such, but when they choose different curfew hours based on a child’s age, such as in Churchill, Manitoba, it sounds like choosing a bedtime. Every child is unique in both their maturity and their situation, and most times parents know their children better than the government.
In some cases, curfews might help police identify youth from troubled homes, as some people unfortunately avoid being home at almost all costs. But if a police officer did send these youth home, this might cause further harm than if they remained in a public place.
Communities should also keep in mind that youth curfews might violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, such as the right to equality, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to be free from arbitrary detention, or the right to life, liberty, and security of the person. If challenged, the government would need to prove that a violation of these rights is justified in a free and democratic society.
In 2007, two mothers in Thompson, Manitoba, one of whom ran the city’s Boys and Girls Club, challenged the city’s youth curfew as unconstitutional, but the municipality chose to repeal the law instead of go to court. The Quebec Human Rights Commission did nullify a youth curfew in Huntingdon, Quebec, in 2004. Furthermore, similar by-laws have been challenged in courts in the United States and been struck down.
A curfew on Halloween may be less objectionable than a year-round curfew, but if parents take issue with it, municipalities should respect them. Ultimately, communities should say “no” to a youth curfew. Evidence of their effectiveness in reducing crime is dubious, but even if they did, they stereotype young people in an unfair manner and risk an expensive legal challenge for violating rights.
Brianna Heinrichs is a Policy Analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy at www.fcpp.org.