In an attempt to curb teen violence, Oakland City Council is considering a new ordinance that would set night time and school hour curfews for teenagers, the Bay Citizen reported today. The ordinance, known as the “Juvenile Protection Curfew,” is being pushed by council president Larry Reid and council member Ignacio De La Fuente. It would prohibit minors from being outside anywhere in Oakland between 10 pm and 5 am Sunday through Thursday, and 11:30 pm to 5 am on Friday and Saturday. It also includes a school day curfew from 8:30 am to 1:30 pm.
There are numerous exemptions written into the ordinance, ostensibly to protect children’s rights and liberties. Some of the exemptions include being involved in an emergency, being accompanied by parents, going to or from work or exercising free-speech rights (such as participating in a protest). This latter exemption, of course, leaves open the possibility that adolescents could stay out all night with picket signs protesting the curfew itself, or hang out on a street corner claiming the neighborhood as an act of neighborhood pride.
In reality, any curfew could be a seen as an infringement on speech and assembly rights, while the “free speech” exemption could be interpreted however the authorities please in order to justify arrests and harassment of youth. For example, what happens when youth are peacefully exercising their free speech at a demonstration and the police decide to create a riot by attacking protestors and mass arresting them, as often happens during peaceful protests? Will they be charged with curfew violations in addition to the usual disturbing the peace and failure to disperse?
Of course teen violence and deaths are a serious matter and reducing them ought to be a social priority. However, curfews do nothing to address the causes of teen violence and there is little evidence they reduce violence. In fact, a study by Mike Males, in 1999, showed no reduction in youth crime resulting from California curfews.
Yet why should evidence be considered a relevant factor in social policy?
The Oakland policy is modeled after the Long Beach curfew, which has been in place since 1983. When pressed for data on the program’s effectiveness, Long Beach’s Police Information Officer (PIO), Nancy Pratt, said that there’s no way to measure how many crimes have been prevented as a result of the curfew. “How do you quantify that?” she said. “We don’t know how many youth have been protected from becoming a victim, or prevented from committing crimes.”
This is not a very compelling case for stripping away civil liberties from an entire class of people. It is also a load of malarkey. One can look at crime statistics and see that, in fact, youth crime had been dropping in Long Beach, but at roughly the same rate as other Los Angeles and Orange County cities that did not have curfews (see Los Angeles and Orange County Cities' Crime by Status Arrests, 1990-96).
The fact is that youth crime has been declining throughout the country, including violent crime.
One might argue that curfews help keep some kids out of trouble, but this would also be a terrible argument. In order to enforce curfews, police must patrol areas where youth frequent, interrogate and arrest them, book them, fill out paper work, contact parents and social services, taking them away from more urgent and potentially lethal situations like traffic accidents and actual homicides and assaults.
If the goal is to protect youth, then it would be wise to consider when crimes against youth occur and where. According to the Bay Citizen, most crimes against youth – such as burglary or assault– occur after school between 3pm and 6pm, which would make a curfew pointless. A cheaper and more constructive solution would be an investment in sports and after-school programs.
More appallingly, thousands of youth are killed and hundreds of thousands are injured in their own homes each year by adult family members. For some kids, being out on the streets at night may actually be safer than being in their homes.
None of this should matter much to policy makers, whose primary constituents are the affluent residents of Oakland. They could do nothing, and the affluent residents would be no worse off. Teen violence is essentially a problem affecting poor teens and remains safely cloistered in poor neighborhoods away from middle class youth. A curfew will do little to change this, but it will allow the horrified middle class do-gooders in the hills to feel like they have helped their poor neighbors in the flatlands. And they can win these Brownie points without making any significant social investment in those poor communities, without sacrificing any of their wealth or privilege, without addressing the high unemployment rate among black youth (41% nationally).