There’s much disagreement about whether juvenile curfew laws are effective, constitutional or applied in racially biased ways.
But what’s certain is the La Marque City Council did the right thing in sponsoring a thoughtful public conversation about the controversial ordinances, which forbid juveniles from being out in public during specified hours, typically at night and when school is in session. La Marque’s curfew applies to people younger than 17.
After public hearings and a lot of community debate, the city council this week unanimously approved an amended version of its youth curfew ordinance.
The ordinance, which has been in place in one form or another for 50 years, must, under state law, be renewed every three years. La Marque failed to renew it in 2017, and the curfew expired for two years. About 10 citations had been issued for curfew violations while the ordinance had lapsed, Police Chief Kirk Jackson said. All of those had been dismissed, according to the municipal court.
The council Monday also approved an annual review of the ordinance at a public hearing each February, during which the police department would present data about the number of interactions with minors, the number of accidents involving minors and the number of arrests each year involving minors.
The council amended the ordinance to mandate more police training in de-escalation during heated situations and mental health crisis intervention training. And it agreed to coordinate with the police department on an educational video for youth about their rights when approached by police, as well as appropriate interaction with police when approached over a curfew violation.
“Police responsibility and understanding will be key to the amended curfew’s success,” Councilman Keith Bell said.
La Marque’s was the first local city council in recent memory that has asked in a formal way whether the public benefit in juvenile curfew laws justifies the infringement on basic civil rights. The discussions were meaningful and concerns on both sides were heard.
There are legitimate concerns that juvenile curfew laws are enforced in racially biased ways and unfairly burden minors who work late nights.
The Austin City Council voted in 2017 to end the city’s youth curfew amid concerns that it targeted racial minorities and added to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
There also are concerns about whether police can tell the difference between a 19-year-old who might be exempt from a curfew and a 17-year-old who might not be. Any law that allows the police to stop someone on perceived age could lead to unreasonable search and seizure, argue those opposed to juvenile curfew ordinances.
Likewise, teens in cars are less likely to be stopped and questioned about their ages than those walking, on bicycles or using public transportation. That means youth without access to privately owned vehicles are more likely to be cited than their more wealthy peers.
Curfews can raise the probability of being stopped or searched for reasons that have very little to do with age, a possibility often cited by the American Civil Liberties Union for reversing the laws on grounds they violate basic civil liberties.
But supporters say curfews reduce crime and protect children.
The first curfew was enacted in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1880. President Benjamin Harrison gave a speech endorsing curfews as “the most important municipal regulation for the protection of the children of American homes from the vices of the streets,” according to a 2011 study by Patrick Kline, of University of California at Berkeley.
Kline’s research showed curfews actually reduced crime among adults, “either because of cross-age interactions or stepped-up social programming that might accompany curfew enactments.”
Many cities passed curfews in the 1990s in response to an increase in youth violence. President Clinton embraced the policies and urged more cities and towns to adopt them, saying they were intended to help people be better parents, according to reports.
There have been a number of challenges to juvenile curfew laws on the grounds they violate the First Amendment and other guarantees provided under U.S. and state constitutions.
“Most frequently, challenges claim the laws infringe on the fundamental rights of youth and parents, violate the right to travel and the First Amendment right to free speech, and are over-broad or vague,” according to the National Center for Youth Law. “Despite the numerous challenges and lower court decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has never taken up the issue of juvenile curfew laws, leaving the states to sort the issues out for themselves, with increasingly mixed results.”
The federal circuit courts are divided on most of the issues presented by advocates, coming to different conclusions about whether juveniles have a fundamental right to travel, whether curfew laws infringe on the rights of parents in raising their children, and how and when First Amendment rights are implicated under the ordinances, according to the center.
Both sides have compelling arguments.
La Marque has sparked a discussion and should carefully study the ordinance and its effects during its reviews each year.
Councilwoman Casey McAuliffe, who questioned whether there was evidence to support the idea that curfews decreased youth crime, was right in praising the public discussion, characterizing it as a good example of a democratic process in which people could disagree and still reach consensus.
That’s how city councils should operate.
• Laura Elder