Kids, the Cops May Not Be Setting Your Curfew for Long

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Why you should care

Teenagers out alone at night shouldn't have to see cops as a threat.

Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice. Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice.

Cities in Texas are charting a new course for how law enforcement polices teenagers. And what’s happening in the Lone Star State seems to be catching on elsewhere.

Crime reduction and keeping teens safe are commonly cited as the primary reasons for instituting juvenile curfews aimed at keeping people under the age of 17 off the streets at night — from 11 pm to 5 am. In 2009, 84 percent of municipalities with more than 180,000 residents had rules allowing the police to arrest kids for being out after hours. But research published in 2016 by the Campbell Foundation shows that the strategy is “ineffective at reducing crime and victimization.” Other reports have pointed to negative consequences of such ordinances: an uptick of nonjuvenile criminal activity, criminalization of teenagers and exacerbating an already tenuous relationship between youth and police.

Now cities are slowly changing their attitude toward juvenile curfews. Austin voted down its decades-long ordinance in 2017. San Antonio repealed its curfew laws last year and is now investing in proactive ways to attack the root of the problem. They opened a 24-hour “reengagement center” staffed with social workers who are there to help rather than criminalize a child who may be on the streets at 2 am. Waco struck its juvenile curfew laws from the books in 2014.

We’ve seen police force after police force enthusiastically promote a curfew and then after a year or two back off.

Dr. Mike Males, Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

In September, Houston’s City Council eliminated the city’s daytime juvenile curfew — kids could be fined for being in public without an adult on school days before — though it left the nighttime ordinance intact. And the trend is beginning to extend beyond Texas. Last September, the City Council of Montgomery, Alabama, rejected an attempt to pass a curfew. Meanwhile, in San Diego, California, the police department has “in the last four or five years backed off” from strictly enforcing curfew laws, “saying it doesn’t work,” according to Dr. Mike Males, a senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

“We’ve seen police force after police force enthusiastically promote a curfew and then after a year or two back off,” says Males. “It just occupies a lot of police time, mainly taking law-abiding kids off the street.”

Curfew for minors

A curfew sign in downtown Long Beach, California.

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Despite these findings, however, not everyone is sold on or even paying attention to the evidence. A proposed bill prohibiting all cities and counties in Texas from setting curfews for minors failed during the 2019 legislative session. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, according to the mayor’s office, there was a discussion nearly 10 years ago about doing away with the juvenile curfew, but it was never brought to a vote. Nationally, more than 47,000 youths were incarcerated every night on average in 2015, 75 percent of them for nonviolent offenses, according to the Burns Institute, which tracks racial and ethnic disparities in juvenile justice. Seven out of every 10 were youths of color.

The sticking point, according to Males, is the false notion that teenagers are inherently up to no good — especially teens who are not White. “The purpose of curfews is to keep Black and Brown kids out of areas where they scare older Whites,” says Males.

Curfews date back 50 or 60 years but were supercharged in the 1990s after an inflammatory study about a coming generation of young “superpredators” went viral. Municipalities in every state began imposing juvenile curfew laws. A few years later, the author of the study publicly decried his own research, but it was too late. Curfews continued to proliferate.

When Chris Vallejo first joined Austin’s police department a quarter of a century ago, he admits he came in with a bias toward keeping juvenile curfew laws. “It’s something we grew up with as a [police] culture so we didn’t question it,” he says. Now Vallejo is a committee member of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing (ASEBP), an organization founded in 2015 by police officers from jurisdictions around the country alarmed by the scant scientific evidence supporting the way they police.

“Police departments are used to doing what they’ve always done,” says Ivonne Roman, a founding member of ASEBP and a captain in the Newark Police Department. “But there is no evaluation of whether it’s effective or if it actually is harmful.”

Meanwhile, in Dallas, a curfew law was allowed to expire in January 2019 only to be reinstated in March. “I’ve sat with the Dallas police chief and it’s still something they want to hold onto,” says Meme Styles, president of MEASURE, a social advocacy group. “We are a group of people of color who believe in using evidence and information in order to … help and not harm communities.” If there’s a teenager outside at night, find out why, Styles says. Outside may be safer than inside.

Still, change has been slow — and hard to track. The National Center for Youth Law has not found a clearinghouse that lists every municipality’s juvenile curfew laws, and while some groups provide partial lists, the information isn’t always up to date.

“With 75 percent of youth locked up for nonviolent offenses, our country doesn’t have an alarming crime problem. We have an incarceration problem,” reports the Burns Institute.

“The fact is that Black and Brown kids are more likely to be walking,” Males argues, “whereas White kids are more likely to be driving. It’s pretty hard to arrest somebody who is driving.”

Perhaps the biggest problem, advocates say, is that laws enacted decades ago fail to take account of changes taking place in teen America. Youth crime has decreased 77 percent since 1995, the high school dropout rate is down about 66 percent and the number of students in college has increased.

“Juvenile crime has dropped to a point where teenagers shouldn’t even be considered a crime problem anymore,” says Males. “You can’t blame an entire demographic group for crime. That’s just a bad concept to begin with.”

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