The kids are all right — and they don’t want a Montgomery County youth curfew

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.

Student curfew opponents show their colors. Click the image for more photos from the Youth Town Hall.

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.

Video excerpts:

News coverage:

=====
* 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.’

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11 Responses to The kids are all right — and they don’t want a Montgomery County youth curfew

  1. Woody Brosnan says:

    Woody Brosnan, vice chair of Safe Silver Spring,
    The controlling legal case in Maryland is a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a very similar curfew law in Charlottesville, Va. (See Schleifer v. City of Charlottesville,) The proposed Montgomery County curfew protects First Amendment activities and contains numerous exceptions that have been upheld by the courts.
    The Progressive Movement in the U. S. began with the fight for child labor laws, universal education and other steps to try to make sure that children had a chance to grow up and fully participate in the society.The proposed curfew is in that tradition. It already is illegal for teens to drink, smoke or in Maryland to drive vehicles after midnight.

    • Mr. Brosnan, I couldn’t disagree more that this is a progressive measure. The difference between the laws you cite and the one in question is that drinking or smoking or (arguably) teen driving after midnight are harmful or life threatening per se. (I’m not nuts about the teen driving ban, but there may be an empirical basis for it that I don’t know.) But it is frankly authoritarian, not progressive, to deem going outside after some certain hour is in and of itself life threatening. In my opinion, it’s also disingenuous of some(not you) to claim that’s the true motive here; I think it has far more to do with assuaging business and developer fears following a couple of headline grabbing incidents.

    • Meanwhile, I share your desire for a safe Silver Spring and Montgomery County. Like Phil Andrews, I suspect that blanket civil liberties removal doesn’t achieve that. I think likelier answers are improved responses to unusual events like the Silver Spring incident, coupled with more youth programs as alternatives for restless youths. If we’re particularly worried about a given location like Downtown Silver Spring, perhaps the county should establish a police substation there.

  2. M. N. says:

    As a teenager in Montgomery County, I am pleased by the level of involvement of my peers in this situation, and hopeful that the county council will uphold the rights of Montgomery County minors. Thank you for this well-written article and the effort put into covering the meeting fairly.

  3. Pingback: Montgomery County Office of Public Information becomes Office of Curfew Advocacy | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

  4. Woody Brosnan says:

    Woody Brosnan responded,

    The issue of course is whether unaccompanied minors should be in certain PUBLIC places after a certain hour. Laws also protect juveniles in many other ways. They cannot be held liable for a contract they sign. The juvenile justice system protects their identity. These laws recognize what science has now proven, that the adolescent brain is not yet fully mature to reasonably avoid risks. (See this month’s cover story in the National Geographic.)

  5. We’ll have to agree to disagree, Mr. Brosnan. I believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and in not forbidding actions of an entire group because of the misdeeds or feared misdeeds of a few, or their alleged immaturity. (Have you actually listened to any of the young people in the videos?) I hope that in your heart, you do as well. The rationales you give are bad enough for the youths who will suffer for it. But they’re all too easily extended to whatever group of people we get it into our heads to be suspicious of next. Restricting people’s fundamental rights “for their own good” or because we deem them incompetent/untrustworthy is a slippery slope any of us might find ourselves sledding downhill on someday.

  6. Pingback: Montgomery County Youth (Friendly?) Town Hall « Being the Change

  7. Pingback: County Council tables curfew, loitering bills | Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition

  8. Pingback: Silver Spring Youth Worker Coalition

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