The Montgomery County Council hearing room was packed Wednesday night for the second “Youth Town Hall,” with over two hundred mostly youthful meeting goers. Promoted as a chance for students grades 4 to 12 to “have your say!” and get questions answered on topics ranging from class size to public transportation needs to — yes — the proposed youth curfew, the hearing may have been just as educational for the Council as for its young audience.
The town hall — televised live on County Cable Montgomery — was led off with an exceptionally well-researched question by Melissa Cleary of Rockville High School, who began, “I would like the Council to explain why they think they have the authority to override the Constitution of the United States of America,” citing numerous court cases* where curfews similar to the one proposed by County Executive Leggett have been found unconstitutional “due to a minor’s constitutional right to move about freely in public.”
It never got any easier for Council members supporting the curfew — who, judging by responses, were at minimum members Craig Rice, Nancy Floreen, Hans Riemer, and Mark Elrich. Phil Andrews and Roger Berliner were clearly skeptics — Berliner was at considerable pains to point out that the whole thing was Ike Leggett’s idea, while Andrews — an outspoken opponent of the curfew — focused on its likely low efficacy: of crimes committed by youths 22 years of age or less, he said, only about 6 to 7% took place during proposed curfew hours. Council members Navarro and Leventhal largely managed to avoid tipping their hand on the issue, and Council chair Valerie Ervin was not present.**
Leah Muskin-Pierret — now known county-wide as a leader of the anti-curfew movement following a Gazette front-page writeup — followed with even more pointed criticism. Regarding the frequent observation by curfew advocates that our county adjoins two jurisdictions with curfew laws — DC and PG County — Ms. Muskin-Pierret noted drily that they were jurisdictions “with curfews that don’t work.”*** She went on to characterize the push for a curfew as fulfilling the basic criteria for a “witch hunt”: begun by paranoia, targeting a potentially innocent group with little power, and not really solving the alleged problem. Referring to an incident in Germantown this summer, she asked, “Are youth rights in this county really worth just $450 in stolen chips? Maybe they are.” She then directly challenged Councilmembers Elrich and Riemer whether they were more concerned with election success than with actually solving crime problems.
Riemer denied that political considerations were driving his decision on the issue, and directed people to his Facebook page(!) for statements outlining why he’s come to believe a curfew is the right thing to do. He feels the curfew is “not a singular solution” and “not by any stretch the most important policy” to address crime and victimization of young people — leaving me, at least, wondering why it was important to keep at all. He claimed to believe the curfew would “keep young people safer when they hang out” — though a moment’s thought suggests they wouldn’t be hanging out when the curfew was in effect.
Councilmember Floreen asked for a show of hands of those 17 and under, and then among those, who lived with parental curfews. Only a very few hands remained held up, clearly surprising Floreen and others. A policeman next to me fixed his gaze on one of the councilmembers and touched his nose demonstratively — meaning, I suppose, that he thought kids were not being honest. My guess, on the other hand, is that they were — in most reasonably functional families, with most halfway trustworthy kids, specific-time curfews aren’t really necessary when the daily routine rules. To be sure, there are dysfunctional families and kids who do bad things, but I suspect that the basic fact underlying all the negative or inconclusive findings Ms. Muskin-Pierret cites is that a curfew is too weak a reed to deter kids determined, impulsive, and/or stupid enough to make trouble.
Another student, Mojan N., pointed out that curfew enforcement would take police attention away from more serious crime fighting, and asked if police have discretion to pick and choose who gets stopped and challenged for curfew violations, how racial profiling — even if unconsciously done — could be avoided.
Councilmember Elrich said he felt police would not be distracted by a curfew, which was meant to be more “reactive and responsive than anything else.” He went on to say “we’re going to have to trust the police in the county, [they] have a pretty good reputation for… you might call it moderation, I would call it proper behavior.“ He allowed that the Silver Spring out-of-town gang fight hadn’t happened again, and that “we’ve to weigh whether that was a one time incident, or whether this is really a serious threat.“ He would also be evaluating whether curfews were a necessary or a useful tool to address that threat.****
In response to another questioner’s assertion that business sales might drop because of a curfew, Councilmember Floreen said, “I would pick a different argument… Frankly, teens seventeen and younger are not known as big spenders after 11 o’clock at night… There’s a perception out there in the business world… that a big crowd of kids hanging out some place does not encourage the big spenders.” It seems fair to reply that there’s a perception out here, in the non-business world, that that’s most of what really matters about this issue to all too many Council members, past and present.
Colin Kincaid, a junior at Winston Churchill High School, pointed out that Maryland statutes already give police the authority they need when youths are behaving badly, and wanted to know “what exceptions to these existing laws the curfew will actually affect in real world situations.“ He also noted if his parents are OK with him going running at 2 A.M., “what gives you the authority to tell them no: we’re going to care for your children and say that they can’t be out, even if you think it’s safe for them.”
Councilmember Rice denied that parent’s rights were affected, since, he reasoned, a parental note would get a youth off the hook if challenged during curfew hours. He went on, “How many of you said you didn’t have curfews? And that was striking. …Those are the ones we’re talking about. We’re not talking about the people who have curfews, who have parents that are involved …” That caused a parent in the front rows to explode, “Excuse me. I’m involved, and I don’t have a curfew” — to widespread applause.
- Melissa Cleary–Councilmembers Berliner, Andrews, Rice
- Leah Muskin-Pierret–Councilmembers Riemer, Floreen
- Mojan N.–Councilmembers Elrich, Andrews
- Paul Cheakalos–Councilmembers Navarro, Floreen
- Colin Kinkaid–Councilmembers Berliner, Rice, Riemer, Elrich
- Mojan N., after town hall, evaluates council responses
- Colin Kinkaid, after town hall, evaluates council responses, discusses next steps
- Zoe Dobkin, after town hall
- David Stark, after town hall
- Playlist of all videos in sequence
- Curfew proposal the hot topic at Montgomery County Council meeting for students (Cooney, Gazette.net, 10/13/11)
- Teens Challenge Montgomery Co. Council On Curfew (Bush, WAMU, 10/13/11)
- Teens speak out against curfew in spirited town hall meeting (Eisler, WJLA, 10/13/11)
- Montgomery County Youth (Friendly?) Town Hall (Weatherell, “Being The Change,” 10/13/11)
* Jiovan Anonymous vs. City of Rochester, 2009: media report, decision. Hutchins v. District of Columbia, 1998 : media report, decision; The State of Washington v. J.D., 1997: media report, decision; Seattle v. Pullman, 1973: decision. Nunez v. City of San Diego, 1997: media report, decision. Thank you to Ms. Cleary for these references! See also “The Constitutional Right to be a Parent” for excerpts of Nunez and other decisions bearing on the youth curfew issue.
** Leventhal was also on the fence about the youth curfew at a recent Democratic club function.
*** Citing studies by researchers at the University of Maryland and the Urban Institute.
**** See in this regard “Don’t Worry, It’s Just a Tool: Enacting Selectively Enforced Laws
Such as Curfew Laws Targeting Only the Bad Guys” (Cleek et al, Justice Policy Journal, 2010).
EDITS, 10/13: Germantown, not Gaithersburg. 10/14: ‘kids who do bad things’ for ‘bad kids.’