Curfews: Crime Fighting Or Racial Profiling?

Flash mobs of young people have recently engaged in street assault and theft. Now there's intensified debate surrounding curfews as a way to lower youth crime. Montgomery County, Md. is considering the passage of a curfew. Guest host Tony Cox explores rationales for and against the rules with Montgomery County's executive and a senior researcher of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TONY COX, host: But first, a series of violent flash mobs in Philadelphia earlier this month prompted Mayor Michael Nutter to tighten the city's existing youth curfew law even further. Now, young people aged 17 and under must be off the streets of Philadelphia by 9:00 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Seventy-one teens were detained by police this weekend, a successful use of the curfew in the eyes of Mayor Nutter, and more city and local governments are experimenting with curfews as a way to fight youth crime.

In recent months, Chicago and Cleveland Heights in Ohio have passed their own laws limiting nighttime activities for teens. And other towns, like Jackson, Mississippi, are considering curfews right now.

But how effective are these laws in stopping crime and do they unfairly target teens of color?

To talk about this, we're joined by Mike Males. He is the senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice who is joining us from Oklahoma City.

Also with us is Ike Leggett. He is the county executive for Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the jurisdictions that's debating youth curfews right now. And he's joining us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Welcome, gentlemen.

IKE LEGGETT: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.

MIKE MALES: Yeah, thank you.

COX: Mr. Males, I want to start with you. How prevalent are curfews like the ones we are seeing in Philadelphia and elsewhere around the country?

MALES: They're fairly prevalent. There are a lot of cities and communities that have them. I understand over 200 major cities have curfews.

It's interesting that outside the United States you see hardly any used curfews. It's almost strictly an American phenomenon but they're quite common in the United States, although there's tremendous variance in how they're enforced.

In Oklahoma City, for example, there's a curfew for Bricktown and it was primarily intended, I believe, to keep black teenagers out of this gentrifying area of Oklahoma City that they're trying to appeal to tourists.

It's enforced almost exclusively in Bricktown; although there's a citywide curfew, it's almost never enforced.

COX: Mr. Leggett, your area in Montgomery County, Maryland is in a hot debate, I suppose it's fair to say, over this topic at the moment. What are the arguments on either side?

LEGGETT: Well, first of all, let me make certain and clear for the record that I am an African-American. I heard a moment ago that there was something designed in some places to basically discriminate toward African-Americans. For me, this is a public safety issue and we're looking at it precisely that way.

But what we've seen in Montgomery County is a significant increase in juvenile violence and arrests. We've had almost a 25 percent increase in the last three or four years.

We now have 1,300 gang members in Montgomery County and we have curfews in our neighboring jurisdiction in the District of Columbia and in Prince George's County.

Montgomery County is somewhat of an oasis between those two and we've found evidence where young people are coming from those other jurisdictions in some places literally across the street to avoid the curfew and walk into Montgomery County.

And based on that and based on some incidents that we've seen and the increase in crime, I thought that we should move to impose a curfew.

COX: One of the arguments against a curfew has been, not only in terms of what you're considering in Montgomery County, but elsewhere, is whether or not it's effective.

LEGGETT: Well, I've seen mixed reviews on that and I don't think they have sort of the empirical studies or analysis because there are so many unique features that you'll find from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, in some places, it is an isolated curfew in certain parts of town. In other places, you may not have what we have in Montgomery County, whereby you have a curfew in two of the surrounding jurisdictions and people literally can walk across the street.

And it may not be an all urban jurisdiction, so there are so many variables that I think you need to have a comprehensive, empirical analysis to go back to make certain that it is effective.

I think, based on what we've seen from the jurisdictions around us and the fact that Montgomery County is now a haven for young people, it's evident that we have a large number of young people who are coming here.

And we've seen, just this weekend, for example. We had a flash mob in Montgomery County. And given the technology that's out there, given the fact that there are a large number of young people without gainful employment and it is so easy now to congregate, we need to provide our law enforcement with an additional tool in which to combat these challenges.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.

We are discussing youth curfews with Ike Leggett. He is the executive of Maryland's Montgomery County.

Also with us, Mike Males. He is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Mike Males, you made the comment earlier that a number of these curfews around the country are tainted with the thought that it is an attempt to keep black youth from going into white areas.

Are there examples in terms of the research that you are aware of where curfews are imposed in white communities on white youngsters?

MALES: I'm not really aware of these curfews being enforced substantially against white youth. The cities that have them don't tend to enforce them.

When you look at statistics of who gets arrested under curfews, it's not only disproportionately minority youth, but it's even more disproportionate than minority youth commit to other kinds of crimes. So I don't think there's any question, in most places in the country, they target youth of color and I hope we'll get into how effective these curfews are because there is some research on that subject.

COX: And what does the research say?

MALES: Well, the studies of individual cities that enacted curfews compared to cities that didn't overwhelmingly show that curfews are not effective in reducing youth crime, that they do not enhance public safety and they don't reduce crime overall. Youth contribute only a small fraction of crime in any particular area.

And the reason we found in our studies of hundreds of curfew citations and looking at the individual circumstances of youths that get arrested and cited under curfews, is that these are not the youths that are committing crime.

In fact, we found more than 99 percent of the curfew citations involved young people who were simply doing routine things like coming out of restaurants or playing basketball so that the population that gets curfewed is not the population that's committing crime.

And curfews wind up being ingenious instruments for wasting police time, taking law abiding youths off the streets and making streets even more dangerous due to the vacancy of law-abiding people.

COX: What about that, Mr. Leggett?

LEGGETT: Well, it depends on what the law actually says and how the law is interpreted and how the law is implemented. For example, in Montgomery County the law that we are looking at provides for exception for young people who are working, young people who are engaged in lawful activities, and there are a number of exceptions for that.

But let me go back to the central portion of this question here because if you're saying that the law enforcement officers are stereotyping or discriminating towards young people, African-Americans and other minorities, to be particularly blunt about it, you're basically saying that they're racist, in many ways. And if you have that kind of a problem, if you have a problem with your police force; it needs addressed. It is separate apart from the curfew problem. And so we need to keep that fact by, that if you are a racist, if you are discriminated and you have that mindset, then you have a different problem in your police force and you need to do something about that.

I think he's probably right that there are mixed views in terms of effectiveness, but given the seriousness of the crime, given the challenges we face today and given what we see around this country that is happening in other jurisdictions, I think this is a useful tool.

One of the things that is hard to prove is a negative here. You may not significantly reduce crime, but one of the things you have to keep in mind is that crime may not increase as rapidly where you have a curfew.

And you may have some challenges with some of the people who may be arrested, but in our case, we're simply giving citations and only in cases where we see a failure to obey the curfew and we see that there's a problem for, you know, other peaceful disturbance, you get a citation beyond that.

COX: Who are the youth that are committing the crime in Montgomery County that you are concerned about? Tell us who they are.

LEGGETT: Well, it's a little bit of both. And for the most part, the incident that we had most recently engaged young people from outside of Montgomery County. In other words, coming from other jurisdictions.

COX: Are we talking about black kids?

LEGGETT: It was a combination. The last incident and the most recent incident, it was, in fact, mostly African-American kids.

The incident that just occurred just this past weekend, based on what we have discovered thus far, were in fact Montgomery County kids and, unfortunately, kids that we think are probably in our school system that we can address in other forms. So we have a mix there.

COX: Our time is up, but I do want to ask you one final follow-up, Mr. Leggett, for a quick response. Do you think, as we sit here today, that it is likely that a curfew law will be enacted in Montgomery County, given everything that we've already heard and discussed so far?

LEGGETT: I am most optimistic that we will pass a curfew, maybe not in the precise language that I have, but I'm reasonably certain that we will pass one.

COX: Now, a curfew would be temporary?

LEGGETT: No. It will be year round from 11:00 at night to 5:00 A.M. in the morning. That's Monday through Thursday. And from 12:00 to 5:00 A.M. on the weekends. And that's for young people below the age of 18.

COX: Cannot be on the streets during those times?

LEGGETT: Unless you're in one of the exceptions.

COX: And penalty if you are caught?

LEGGETT: Well, if you're just simply out and you are caught, you will get a citation, $150.

COX: All right. Ike Leggett is the county executive for Montgomery County, Maryland. He joined us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. He joined us from Oklahoma City.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

LEGGETT: Thank you for having me.

MALES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: