Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett proposed setting a curfew on teenagers under 18, raising concerns about how young people are treated here and around the country.
Expedited Bill 25-11 (pdf) would bar minors from being in public in Montgomery County after 11 pm on weeknights, and after midnight on weekends. Exceptions would be made for young people coming home from work, attending a school or church activity, or those accompanied by a parent or other authorized adult, and anyone caught breaking curfew would be taken to the nearest police station.
While it's true that curfews in other cities have sometimes successfully reduced crime (pdf), many feel they are unnecessarily restrictive and discriminatory against teenagers. They also don't address what may be the root cause of teen crime, which is a general lack of things to do.
After dark, there isn't much to do in Montgomery County after dark, which contributes to the problem. Many of the county's movie theatres and bowling alleys have closed in recent years, so teens often end up in urban areas like Rockville Town Center, downtown Bethesda and downtown Silver Spring, where some of them get into trouble and harm others. If there were more legitimate nighttime activities for teens, that would deter some of the illegitimate activities from happening. Parent groups often organize post-prom parties to deter drinking after school dances. Perhaps the Recreation Department or other organizations could set up similar events on other nights.
It's unclear whether a curfew in Montgomery County is actually necessary. Though Leggett's spokesman, Patrick Lacefield, claims that Montgomery has become a magnet for gang members coming from the District and Prince George's, police statistics show that youth crime in the county is decreasing. The number of youth under 18 arrested each year has been steady for the past ten years and, in fact, fell for most of the decade. Meanwhile, the number of juvenile offenses recorded each year has fallen by 36 percent since 2001. According to the Washington Post, gang-related incidents in the county have dropped by more than half since 2007.
It could even be that the increase in public spaces such as downtown Silver Spring available to teens in Montgomery County may even be contributing to the decline in crime, since such places are effectively chaperoned by the general public. Cutting troublesome teens off from public spaces would only send them "underground" and out of sight.
Whether or not the proposed curfew would be effective, it may also be illegal. Teen curfews have faced many court challenges, often finding them to be too restrictive. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Lake Oswego, Oregon on behalf of four high school students, stating that a teen curfew there "criminalizes all youth" whether or not they had done anything wrong. Two years ago, a state appeals court in California struck down a teen curfew in San Diego that had many of the same provisions as Montgomery County's proposed curfew, arguing that the ban was too broad to be enforced.
There are better solutions. We can reduce crime and provide more activities for people of all ages in Montgomery County by creating more nightlife options in urban centers like downtown Silver Spring, putting eyes on the street and giving teenagers legitimate places to go. The Fillmore music hall, which opens this fall, will do just that, putting two thousand ticket-buying people on the streets multiple times a week. More housing downtown will also keep the area populated and patrolled after the diners and concertgoers have left.
Teen curfews, like last year's county-imposed skateboarding ban in downtown Silver Spring, just punish all young people for the misdeeds of a few. What's next, mandatory summer school for everyone because a few kids flunked English? With crime decreasing and the possibility of judicial challenge, a curfew in Montgomery County is a solution looking for a problem. There are more substantial ways to combat crime and boredom, so long as we're willing to find them.
The curfew bill goes before a vote by the County Council at a public hearing on Tuesday, July 26 at the Council Office Building in Rockville. For more information, check out the County Council website.