Youth curfew: great in concept, not in practice
In response to an uptick in gun violence, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks last week announced a month-long enforcement of a longstanding curfew for children age 16 and younger. Early returns — one weekend’s worth anyway — appeared favorable as the D.C. suburban county reported just two shootings, neither fatal on Saturday and Sunday. As it happens, the move has proven trendy. The District of Columbia had already quietly resumed enforcing that city’s youth curfew as well with at least 16 young people picked up by police for violations since Aug. 1, according to
The Washington Post. District officials aren’t claiming they’ve made inroads but recognized that with violent crime and youth arrests up this year, something needed to be done.
Might it be the right move for Baltimore? Already, at least one councilmember, Robert Stokes, has raised the possibility publicly. Like many other cities, Baltimore has a youth curfew on the books but enforcement has been sporadic over the years. Asked about whether the city might follow Prince George’s County’s lead and more actively enforce a curfew, a spokeswoman for Mayor Brandon Scott issued a statement on Tuesday noting that he has long favored curfews to provide young people “supports and resources” but not for the purpose of “rounding up or arresting them.” In other words, it’s all very well to signal to families that young people should be home voluntarily by 10 p.m., but not for police to be picking them up off the streets and slapping on the handcuffs.
If that sounds to you like Mayor Scott is feeling ambivalent on the issue, you probably have him pegged about right. In 2014, then-Councilman Scott was leading the charge as a means to keep children safe at night — but with the expectation that enforcement might mean a violator is dropped off at a recreation center, not thrown in jail. Over time, the effort has softened further. Throw in concerns about racial profiling, police brutality and the COVID-19 pandemic and the case for a light touch has only been reinforced. Again, that’s not an argument for taking a curfew off the books entirely but it does strongly suggest that a youth curfew had better be proven to be highly effective before authorizing any serious police enforcement of one.
So, is it effective? One weekend with fewer arrests in Prince George’s County doesn’t make the case. Over the years, studies on this issue have produced mixed results. Politicians like to call for curfews because they sound good when you’re standing up at a community meeting surrounded by older residents but the numbers don’t really back them up. If they did, juvenile crime in urban areas would be a thing of the past given that 84% of U.S. cities with a population of 180,000 or more have tried them. Instead, they’ve frequently further polarized police with low-income communities of color. And there’s been at least one counter-intuitive problem: Removing young people from city streets also removes potential witnesses to violent crime leaving deserted streets to potential evil-doers.
Still, Baltimore’s own experience this year with gun violence
given its continued march toward 300 or more homicides (for the eighth straight year) has been too awful to take any potential form of help off the books. If the D.C. area finds success, we would expect Mayor Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison to be replicating it here faster than you can say, “cooling off period,” to use an Alsobrooks anti-crime expression. But then we would also expect city officials to quickly hear from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights advocates who have protested curfews in the past as a violation of the rights of both young people and their parents.
Here’s where everyone can agree: School is back in session and students should be in bed at a reasonable hour, with their homework done, so they can be alert and ready to learn first thing in the morning. This not only keeps them safe, it prepares them for a better life. One of the best ways to reduce crime is to address the concentrated poverty that feeds into it. Education is a big part of the answer. And that might be the least disputed benefit of a curfew — as a reminder of how young people and their families should make school the central focus of their lives.