If the city’s enforcement of a summer youth curfew makes New Orleans residents feel safer, that’s pretty much the most they can hope for.
Because there is no empirical evidence — zero, zilch, zip, nada — that putting juveniles under overnight house arrest has any significant impact on reducing crimes committed by or against minors.
Study after study has shown that curfews do not make us safer. And there is recent research that suggests the juvenile restrictions actually make things worse.
That is likely why Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration made a point of explaining how its curfew protocol is different.
“To compare it to what’s been done across the country is a little bit unfair,” Emily Wolff, Cantrell’s director of Youth and Families, said in an interview. “If it were curfew alone, and if it were bringing kids to police headquarters, I think that would be an issue. That’s not what we’re doing here.”
She said juveniles caught violating curfew will get “preventive services” that would include identifying why they aren’t under better parental supervision.
Tenisha Stevens, Cantrell’s criminal justice commissioner, said the city decided to implement the curfew with an eye toward “saving our youth.”
“We’re not talking about the kids who are leaving a NORD facility at 8 o’clock,” she said. “We’re looking at the kids who are at 1, 2 in the morning pulling on door handles and smashing car windows.”
The city’s curfew, however, begins at 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, penalizing a lot of perfectly innocent young people just because they are 16 or younger. Shouldn’t the police just be arresting those who are breaking into cars or smashing windows at 2 a.m.?
“Right now, it’s important that we do something, and we have to do something with a sense of saving our young people to the streets,” Stevens said. “One way is to start to let them know laws are in place. You need to abide by the law that’s in place.”
Except the city is undermining respect for the law by forcing juveniles to abide by an ordinance that is arbitrary and ineffective. It criminalizes activity that is perfectly legal and sows distrust in the community.
Critics of curfews have long pointed out that minority and non-conforming youths are overwhelmingly targeted by enforcement. Black youths often made up more than 90 percent of those taken into custody in New Orleans curfew sweeps over the past two decades.
Stevens said New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson has made it clear that “there will be no profiling in regards to the curfew,” but officers are going to come across violators where they happen to be patrolling, and that is going to be in a lot of minority neighborhoods.
That, in turn, raises the question of whether we would be made safer by police pursuing real crime rather than spending time patting down minors before returning them to their homes or dropping them off at the Covenant House, where they can be picked up by their parents.
I have no doubt young people can benefit from interacting with the wonderful staff at Covenant House, but it still seems like a questionable use of resources if the goal is safety.
A stack of research shows that juvenile crime peaks during the unsupervised time in the late afternoon just after school and not in the hours between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., which is covered by the curfew.
A 2015 study found that juvenile curfews might actually increase gun violence by removing bystanders and potential witnesses from the scene. The researchers noted an observation by Jane Jacobs, a well-known urban theorist, that “A well-used street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted street is apt to be unsafe.”
Juvenile curfews often force not just minors but their friends, siblings and caregivers inside, leaving the streets to those with possibly ill intentions.
New Orleans officials say their approach is better because their intentions are to use the curfew as a way to make “positive contact” with juveniles who are roaming neighborhoods, connect them with city services and prompt inattentive parents to get involved.
The intentions may be good, but they are still diverting police to do social service work and hoping “nanny state” coercion will reduce the crime rate.
It hasn’t worked before, and there is no reason to think it will this time.
Curfews make politicians look like they are being tough on crime and help some residents “feel safer.” That’s all they do.
Tim Morris is a columnist on the Latitude team at NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. Latitude is a place to share opinions about the challenges facing Louisiana. Follow @LatitudeNOLA on Facebook and Twitter. Write to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.