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What communities need is MORE youth ON the streets

While a large majority of American cities have juvenile curfews on their books, cities elsewhere in the world apply curfews only to serious offenders, not to youths committing no crime other than being young and in public.

Americans seem eager to admit what should been deeply shameful: that we grownups have created urban areas so dangerous, and we are so frightened of our young people, that federal proposals for daytime and nighttime curfews would banish youths from being in public all but a few hours most days of the year.

That's not the way we phrase the matter, of course: we blame youths collectively for endangering us (the grownups who raised them!), as discussion of a proposed curfew for Oakland is re-indulging. And let's not mince words, as police chiefs, politicians, and pundits so often do when deploying "youth" as synonymous with violence and crime. They mean black and Hispanic male teens, who suffered 33 of 35 youth homicides in Oakland (which, in turn, comprised around 7% of the city's total homicides) over the last five years. Curfews wind up being enforced almost exclusively against youth of color.

Unfortunately, police stats show that scapegoating youth won't wash; adults in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s commit more serious crime than juveniles under age 18. FBI crime clearance reports show youths account for perhaps 11% of violent crimes, including 1 in 20 homicides.

San Francisco is particularly stark. Its latest annual crime report shows 1,145 youths arrested for serious offenses. Contrast that with local adults in their 20s (4,470), 30s (3,687), 40s (3,873), and even 50s (2,000). That's right, if stopping crime's the concern, we'd be better off curfewing the parents than the kids.

Of course, anyone can pick a particularly emotion-grabbing teenage crime (459 local youthful violent offenses in 2009 to choose from) to justify a curfew. But we could also find even more 40-age mayhem (707 violence arrests) to cite to keep our incipient middle-agers off the streets. Or maybe "reverse curfews" to keep our kids from going home, where city police responded to 4,000 domestic violence calls per year, 60% of which involve weapons.

No matter what the facts may show, youths are popularly designated as fearsome, as are "the streets." "Getting kids off the street" is universally accepted as a key ingredient of civic safety and joy.

Why? What's intrinsically wrong with the combination of kids and public places? Nothing, our (modestly) landmark study of youth curfews found--in fact, communities are better served when more kids are ON the streets.

The reason involves an easily-documentable yet unmentionable fact: the vast, vast majority of teenagers in public are not committing crimes or being victimized. Shocking! Imagine how miraculous it would be if Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts became one of the few, the brave to stand before his community to declare: "Our young people are no more criminal than we adults, they don't deserve to be trashed collectively for the misbehaviors of a few of their number, and they deserve the same access to public space we enjoy."

Cities such as San Jose that made thousands of curfew arrests experienced slower and smaller declines in crime than cities such as San Francisco and Oakland that made none. When Monrovia's nationally famous curfew, we found crime fell much faster during non-curfew hours--that is, when more youth were in public--than during hours the cops were busy de-youthing the streets.

The problem with curfews is that the young people who police cite, arrest, detain, banish, punish, and fine are not the youth who commit crimes. Our analysis of hundreds of curfew citations, including detailed police accounts of their circumstances, showed that 99%-plus of the cited youths were getting out of movies, playing basketball in the park, going home from restaurants, jobs, friends' houses, just enjoying their community. Not a whiff, even to police nostrils, of crime, endangerment, or badness.

What curfews accomplish "on the street" is to waste police time hauling law abiding young people into custody, which creates emptier and more unpoliced public spaces offering more opportunities for crime. They also create antagonistic relationships between cops and youth, who understandably resent being arrested for being non-criminal, noted retired New Haven police chief Nick Pastore in rejecting a curfew in favor of more effective crime abatements.

But, no doubt about it, curfews make important people "feel" better. That is, the respectable adults many city luminaries court just feel safer wine-tasting at a Jack London or strolling down a Market cop-cleansed of the presence of all youth who don't harbor charge cards. That we're actually in somewhat more danger to the extent that curfew-happy cops are off curfewing non-criminal youth is one of those conundrums that plague an America that prizes enacting prejudices over efficacy.

Both Oakland and San Francisco have experienced dramatic, larger than average declines in youth crime, now at record lows, without succumbing to popular curfew foolishness. We claim the status of 21st century global cities, and that means joining our worldwide counterparts in refusing to succumb to small-time, 19th century prejudices against young people that characterize curfew promotions and enforcement.

Keywords: curfew, Mike Males, youth

Posted in Blog, Juvenile Justice

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