Pro/Con: Should Montgomery County enact a night time curfew for youth under 18?

Oct. 30, 2011, 2:08 p.m. | By Leah Muskin-Pierret with Ruth A. | 9 years, 6 months ago

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett drafted a youth curfew bill in July. The curfew would prevent youth under 18 from being out between midnight and 5am on weekends.

Ruth A. says yes: The curfew would keep kids safe without hindering their social lives.

It was approaching midnight on November 1, 2008 when a gunman outside a Ride-On bus fired into the vehicle, wounding two teenagers and killing the third. The incident resulted in the tragic death of Tai Lam, who was at that time a freshman at Blair.

The Blair community was grief-stricken by the loss of a classmate and friend. Unfortunately, Lam's story grazes he threshold of a more pressing problem: youth safety in Montgomery County after hours.

After a disturbing series of instances where youths were victims of or participants in late-night criminal activity, the Montgomery County Council proposed a juvenile curfew for minors. Although teens may be adverse to the idea of being told when to go home, the curfew is designed to permit socializing but not dangerous activity on the streets of Montgomery County.

Although most teens who are likely to be out in the night hours are merely looking for innocent fun, there has recently been a disturbing increase in rates of nighttime gang-related violence in the area, making the curfew a necessary measure. Lam's killer was affiliated with a gang, as are many of the perpetrators who target and recruit youths in Montgomery County.

In a recent testimony before the Council, Chief of Police Thomas Manger referenced a massive, decentralized gang fight that took place over the Fourth of July weekend in downtown Silver Spring. Two rival gangs arrived in the popular commercial center by public transportation, and split into scattered groups in order to best evade police. The fight concluded in the stabbing of a 17-year-old girl.

The gang members, many of whom were minors, were from gangs based in Prince George's County and Washington, D.C. In a police report, the perpetrators admitted that the fight had been staged in Montgomery County in order for the gang members to evade the curfew laws of their respective municipalities.

The July 2 gang fight is not an isolated incident; Manger noted dozens of similar instances of late-night juvenile crime, including robberies, stabbings and drug deals.

In August, a mob of over 20 teenagers simultaneously stormed upon a 7-Eleven store in Gaithersburg after two in the morning, robbing several hundred dollars' worth of merchandise in under a minute. This increasingly popular criminal trend among teenagers has come to be known as "flash mobbing,” in which an organized group commits a frenzied robbery at a designated time. Although the teens were merely seeking free snacks and late-night adventure, several of the participants have been charged with criminal conspiracy. Had a curfew been implemented at the time, the occurrence could have been prevented even before it happened.

Ike Leggett and the Council are proposing the curfew not to hinder teenagers' social lives, but to prevent such adverse and mindless acts.

After D.C. implemented its juvenile curfew in 1995, youth crime plummeted, according to a ten-year study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In the event that a similar curfew was to be implemented in Montgomery County, it is likely that juvenile crime rates would experience a similar decline.

Currently, juvenile crime in Montgomery County is up. From 2009 to 2010, youth crime spiked from 16% of total arrests to 25% of all arrests, according to Manger in The Gazette. Although adversaries of the bill may testify to the fact that the overall crime rate has abated, rates of juvenile crime have trended in the opposite direction.

The majority of youths are entirely capable of governing themselves in an admirable and peaceable fashion. But because Montgomery County is facing threateningly high juvenile crime rates, some preventative measure is necessary in protecting innocent passerby. Lam's story should remind us to value our safety, and implement boundaries according to what will ultimately best protect youth.

Leah Muskin-Pierret says no: A youth curfew would distract from the issues it tries to solve.

After 11p.m. tonight, every teenager on the streets of Montgomery County will become a violent criminal or defenseless victim - or at least so goes the logic. A youth curfew has been proposed as a tool in a police officer's toolbox, a get out of high crime rates free card for the police department. While their intentions are good, their argument has neglected one crucial fact: a curfew may be more than just an ineffective tool, it could also be a harmful one.

Valerie Ervin, President of the County Council and a chief spokesperson for the curfew, rallied a sense of urgency at a July hearing by declaring that, "The experiment that is downtown Silver Spring is on the precipice now of failing." It's ironic then, to note that the day after the curfew was proposed, a press release from the Montgomery County police department demonstrated a 4.6% drop in crime in the past year. Restriction of core rights in a disaster situation may be justified, but fabricating a disaster situation and then calling for the dismissal of such rights is condemnable. The bill originates not from fact or positive examples, but from an irrational criminal or victim logic. Such a vast oversimplification of youth crime and victimization has been a fantastic selling point, but it unfortunately rejects the realities of our nation's Bill of Rights and modern crime research.

Constitutional rights have quite obviously been overlooked. Youth can have freedoms curtailed, but when a bill hijacks a parent's right to judge their child's specific case and installs a blanket rule, aren't parent's rights being disrespected? For a bill that claims to be cracking down on "negligent and careless parents," it has the potential to irk thousands of dedicated ones.

The logic of the bill also pales to the facts. A study by the US Department of Justice demonstrated that five times as many youth crimes occur after school relative to the late night, and consequently police would do better to crack down on after school crime than install a curfew. The assertion that curfews don't work is backed up by seven studies, from a DC specific study by the American Journal of Criminal Justice to a large-scale synthesis of research from Indiana University. Case in point, an Urban Institute study of the curfew in neighboring Price George's county demonstrated neither a decrease in youth crime nor youth victimization and commented that crime hotspots remained unchanged by the curfew.

A recent shift in the debate takes an even more flawed angle on a curfew: selective enforcement. Lt. Robert Carter, chief of the Silver Spring police, asserted in a Washington Post editorial that cops are endowed with the ability to tell the innocent from the guilty before the crime is perpetrated. He even went so far as to declare that these judgments will be fair because Montgomery County police are, "blind to all bias." The potential for racial profiling is very real; the Fredrick County curfew was even struck down because of it. Even if police are truly colorblind, there is still the inborn bias of financial discrimination. An amended version of the curfew includes exceptions for teens who are patrons of businesses. As for teens who can't afford that lifestyle, their version of hanging out has been deemed illegal.

Lastly, there is the issue of impracticality. Laws exist which prevent the police from demanding ID, so they rely on the teenagers themselves to confess that they are underage and violating curfew. Teenagers already frustrated at such disregard to their First Amendment rights may learn the awful habit of lying to the police.

The prevailing logic that has kept the curfew proposal afloat rejects tenants of fact, rights and reason. Our community deserves and should demand a functional solution to youth crime, instead of settling for a broken one.

Editor's Note: Ruth A.'s full name has been removed per a request for anonymity. No changes have been made to the original story.

Last updated: Feb. 11, 2021, 1:05 p.m.

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