Marc Lamont Hill: Note to city: This youth curfew is a violation

Mayor Nutter (left) and District Attorney Seth Williams announced tougher curfew enforcement to curtail youth violence.
Mayor Nutter (left) and District Attorney Seth Williams announced tougher curfew enforcement to curtail youth violence. (MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 17, 2011

IN RESPONSE to the recent wave of youth crime, particularly the much-ballyhooed teen mobs, Mayor Nutter announced that the city would be imposing stricter curfew laws. The city previously required anyone under 18 to be indoors by midnight, and anyone under 13 to be off the streets by 10 p.m. Now on weekends in University City and Center City, because of recent violence, anyone under age must be inside by 9 p.m.

Although this may seem like a reasonable solution, there are just too many reasons to say "no" to the curfew laws.

The first problem with curfews is that they strip away our rights. As citizens, youths are permitted to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly. As courts have argued, by imposing broad and constitutionally vague curfew restrictions, we limit their ability to engage in lawful behaviors like walking, driving or going to the store.

Equally important are the legal freedom and natural rights of parents to decide how they want to raise their children. With the curfews, parents are no longer able to decide when and where their children are able to go outside. This is ironic, given the current renaissance of conservatism in our country. The same folk who routinely preach gospels of parental responsibility and small government are suddenly in favor of having the state illegally usurp the power of parents to do their jobs.

Some people push back against constitutional arguments by claiming that curfews serve a compelling state interest: reducing crime. The problem with such an argument, however, is that there is no persuasive evidence that curfews are an effective means of law enforcement. According to available data, most juvenile crime occurs between 3 and 7 p.m. As such, an evening curfew does nothing to stem the tide of crime. In fact, according to some studies, the curfews actually increase crime during the daytime hours.

By imposing curfews on our youth, we also continue the trend of criminalizing our children. Over the past decade we have seen the rise in anti-youth policies like civil injunctions against gangs, anti-baggy-pants legislation and zero tolerance in schools. In the case of curfews, we literally make it illegal to be "young" and "outside." Through these practices, we alienate our children and produce the very criminal mentalities and behaviors that we hope to destroy.

Rather than continuing to contain and blame our youth, we must commit ourselves to long-term, root-based solutions. This means expanding Mayor Nutter's admirable commitment to keeping community centers open later, but also creating quality educational and employment opportunities for the city's youth. In terms of direct service, we must revive programs like the Adolescent Violence Reduction Partnership (AVRP), which partnered at-risk youth with adult mentors to prevent them from becoming perpetrators or victims of violence.

Like many citizens, I empathize with Mayor Nutter on this issue. At a moment when crime is rising and many citizens are scared, tough and sometimes unpopular decisions must be made. In this case, curfew laws seem like a common-sense solution to an urgent problem.

The problem is that curfews are nothing more than a Band-Aid, a simple answer to a complex question. Until we commit ourselves to doing the hard work of being personally and socially responsible parents, citizens and leaders, we will continue to suffer the consequences. And no curfew will be able to save us.


Daily News editor-at-large Marc Lamont Hill is an associate professor of education at Columbia University and host of "Our World With Black Enterprise," which airs at 6 a.m. Sundays on TV-One. Contact him at MLH@marclamonthill.com.

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