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Cities move to enact juvenile curfews to curb crime


If you go to college in the heart of a major city, your comfort level getting around can depend on what you're used to.

NAIMA CALDWELL: I'm just very comfortable here because I feel like I know my surroundings.

DETROW: Take Naima Caldwell (ph), a senior at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a Philly native.

CALDWELL: I know the people in some way, shape or form. I feel like nobody's going to bother me. Maybe that's a problem, but I'm straight.

DETROW: Charisma Copeland (ph), on the other hand, is a sophomore from Atlanta, and she isn't used to navigating the city on foot or on public transportation.

CHARISMA COPELAND: I have a taser and pepper spray, but no, I don't feel 100% safe as I would do in Atlanta.

DETROW: Like many cities in the U.S., D.C. has seen an increase in violent crime this year, some of which took place near and on Howard's campus. Last month, a 14-year-old was arrested and charged in the murder of a construction worker that occurred on campus. The teen is also accused of committing two carjackings and an armed robbery before that murder. And on August 15, a large group of teens who were not students instigated a brawl near two of Howard's residence halls.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This chaotic scene broke out around 2 a.m. Monday morning. Police say at least one student was stabbed, and several others were hurt.

DETROW: It was just the latest high-profile incident to happen at or near the college this summer. Naima says students are feeling uneasy about safety.

CALDWELL: I've noticed that a lot of my friends are apprehensive to be outside at certain hours. Like, once the sun sets, they're not leaving their homes. We have an open campus. Like, literally anybody can walk in, and anything can happen.

DETROW: And a lot of people are really worried about the fact that young teens have been charged in these incidents. A couple of days after that brawl, D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith announced a youth curfew targeting seven areas in the district, including the neighborhoods around Howard.


PAMELA SMITH: Another issue that has impacted our community is that young people involved in crimes, in particular, overnight - MPD will initiate a juvenile curfew enforcement pilot in partnership with the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services.

DETROW: But whether that will keep the area safe, the Howard students we spoke with on campus had opinions ranging from skeptical, like senior Deonte Brown (ph)...

DEONTE BROWN: Being young and being outside at 11:00, you're potentially a criminal. I think that's kind of extreme and at least a lot more hostility.

DETROW: ...To pretty blunt, like sophomore Kiara Pugh (ph).

KIARA PUGH: The curfew ain't going to do [expletive], basically. It's not going to do nothing.

DETROW: And nearby in LeDroit Park, a neighborhood covered under the curfew, Cheryl Adams (ph) worries about a generation of troubled kids. She feels they don't have the sense of community that D.C. had when she moved in over 30 years ago and says something needs to be done.

CHERYL ADAMS: I do feel sorry for those children, you know, the ones that don't have the proper guidance. So I'm hoping that the curfew will help them in that sense.

DETROW: Hundreds of towns, cities and counties across the country impose curfews on young people. On September 1, a curfew went into effect across seven D.C. neighborhoods for those age 17 and under. D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith stressed that the intent of the curfew is reaching at-risk teens and preventing youth-based crime.


SMITH: Officers from our Youth and Family Engagement Bureau will patrol seven initial, key focus areas to identify juveniles in violation of curfew. Now, our focus here is to ensure that our youth are safe. Parents, we want you to know where your kids are overnight. We want our city's youth to be safe and to be home during overnight hours. Our goal isn't to arrest our young people, but we want to ensure the safety of our youth here in the District of Columbia.

DETROW: But a lot of researchers doubt whether any of this works. Kristin Henning is director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown University's Law School, and she says there is little evidence to suggest curfews equal less crime or safer kids. We had more questions about this, so we called her up.

KRISTIN HENNING: I think they are ineffective, more harmful than helpful and really a reactive response instead of a thoughtful, careful strategy for managing crime in our city.

DETROW: Let's start with ineffective, the first thing you said. What do we know from the research? Do they have any effect on crime?

HENNING: Yeah. Several studies across the country have shown that juvenile curfews are ineffective both at reducing crime and at reducing victimization. And we've known this for quite some time. Curfews have been experimented with pretty much since the '90s, and there has never been any robust research demonstrating their effectiveness. And quite to the contrary, in some cities, we've seen that, you know, crime has gone up instead of gone down, and so they aren't effective.

DETROW: What do we know about which kids are being detained? Are there any clear trends in terms of the types of kids who are being stopped and picked up? And do we have any sense - are these the teens that are committing some of the crimes that are leading to these curfews or not?

HENNING: So excellent question. What we know, for example, with the proposed curfew this round, the proposed juvenile curfew enforcement pilot, they are targeting seven focus areas. And here's the deal - none of the seven focus areas are in the most affluent neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. So we know that white and affluent youth are often out past curfew but are not going to get swept up in this. And folks don't want to see this as a race issue. And I am sure that the data analyst pulled up the areas with the most crime, and that's where they're launching the pilot.

Well, what we also have to recognize is that someone made the decision not to have a citywide enforcement of this pilot. Someone recognized, rightfully so, that we should not enforce curfews in this way on young people outside of these seven areas because it might sweep up young people who are not committing crimes, who - for whom that police contact would be traumatic and unnecessary. So there is a recognition that an overbroad policy is problematic. What I want folks, our city leaders to see is that even within the neighborhoods that have been targeted, you are overcompensating. We are casting too wide of a net. In other words, we are indeed going to be sweeping up children for whom this is a very traumatic experience and a completely unnecessary experience.

DETROW: So the way you lay this out, the stats are pretty clear. Why do you think cities keep returning to this as a solution?

HENNING: What we see time and time again is that our city leaders default to the traditional law enforcement strategies when we face what feels like an uptick in crime. And in part, our city officials want to be responsive to their constituents and demonstrate that they are listening and doing something, taking action. The problem is that we have to implement the strategies - the right strategies to get the results that we want. And so the problem here is that we either are ignoring the research that we know or we're just not aware of it. And so when I think about the research - we have a juvenile justice advisory group here in the District of Columbia, and that group issued a report in February of 2020 urging the mayor to respond to status behaviors like curfew violations, truancy violations to be handled in the community. That was the recommendation. And they explicitly said that these community-based responses were better than, more important than, more effective than strategies in the juvenile legal system.


HENNING: So I'm thinking about crisis intervention teams, mental health crisis intervention teams. I'm thinking about mobile mental health vans or teams that might be deployed from the Department of Behavioral Health. I'm talking about a continuum of mental health services throughout the city. I'm talking about increased vocational opportunities, fun spaces for children to just be children. That's what we need.

DETROW: Let's just talk for a moment, though, about the situation in D.C. that...


DETROW: ...Has led to this conversation. Youth arrests in D.C. are up from this time last year. There have been an uptick in some areas of violent crimes. And there's some evidence that some young teens have been involved with some serious violent crimes in the city, from carjacking to even murder, as well as being victims of some of those crimes. I hear you talking about broader, longer-term solutions here. Any thoughts on what an alternative to a curfew could be for the immediate short-term problem of trying to stem these crimes from happening?

HENNING: Well, one is if we would invest - and I say invest - meaningfully invest in the immediate future - right? - in - more in violence interrupters and credible messengers. We do have those programs in the District of Columbia, but they are often under-resourced.

DETROW: And can you just explain, for people who don't know, what a violence interrupter is?

HENNING: Yeah. So - and I'll actually use the, you know, credible messenger as a more immediate example for the District of Columbia. Credible messengers is an organization with a team of folks who have been impacted themselves, systems involved themselves, who often come from the communities that are struggling most with violence, folks who understand the language, the culture, the norms of the community, who can go out on the ground and engage with young people. I also think in this moment - and I know we want to say these aren't immediate solutions. Well, it's as immediate as curfew - giving resources to potentially, you know, the Department of Behavioral Health to send out, you know, mental health crisis teams.

I think young people today are suffering from more trauma than ever before in light of the pandemic, in light of, you know, racial unrest that we've been experiencing since March of 2020. There is so much need - rehabilitative services, job services. I think those are immediate. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, why throw money at, you know, a curfew program when that's not going to be any more effective according to the research and, again, more harmful than helpful?

DETROW: Kristin Henning is the director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown University's Law School. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.