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Commission asks if curfew ordinance does any good

Thursday, July 27, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Austin and the United States at large share a history of law enforcement policy discriminating against non-white people, and Monday night Human Rights commissioners Sukyi McMahon and Kristian Caballero invited Texas Appleseed staff and community members to help them answer whether the city’s curfew ordinance was a step in the direction of fair and just crime reduction or if it was an instance of racist policing.

In June, City Council voted 7-4 to extend the ordinance until October, although it was amended to end the daytime curfew of 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (when the most recorded violations occurred) and only retain the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. nighttime curfew. Another amendment said that police officers could not issue a ticket (up to $500) until a teen’s third violation.

The ordinance was adopted in 1990 in response to a national rise in youth crime. In fact, FBI data shows that crime rates had increased across age groups in the decades prior. That did not stop police departments around the country from moving forward with implementation of various new youth-targeted programs, including the curfew ordinance, at the time.

Youth crime has decreased since it was adopted, and supporters of the ordinance have pointed to the drop as a sign that the measure has been effective. A 2011 study published in American Law and Economics Review corroborated the views of ordinance supporters, finding that curfews reduced violent and property crime rates. However, a 2016 Campbell Collaboration survey of 12 juvenile curfews studies concluded that the implementation of the curfews coincided with a national fall in youth crime. “Thus, it appears that juvenile curfews either have no effect on crime and victimization or the effect is too small to be reliably detected with the data available,” the study said.

At the Human Rights Commission meeting, Rocío Villalobos, community outreach coordinator with Texas Appleseed, asked the commission to recommend Council completely eliminate the ordinance before it comes up for review again in October. The urgency of the matter, she said, was compounded by the implementation of the state’s Senate Bill 4, or “sanctuary cities” law, in September, which would enable officers who stopped youth for curfew violations to also inquire about their immigrant status.

“Any interaction between one of our undocumented (youth) and the police,” Villalobos told the Austin Monitor, “could lead to that young person being caught up in this country’s detention and deportation machine and lead to another family that is separated and forever changed.”

Chair Sareta Davis inquired about whether more specific data was available that illustrated racial discrimination. For example, the presenters shared stats from the past few years that showed black and Latino youth were overrepresented among curfew violators, but Ellen Stone, director of research with Texas Appleseed, said that group was still waiting on open records requests to determine how many of those violators were fined and other details about the outcome of each encounter.

“I need tighter stats,” Davis said at the meeting. “Can it be said that there is any good being done (by this ordinance) that doesn’t outweigh the bad?”

Davis, who works as an assistant attorney at the Travis County District Attorney’s office, said that she has seen firsthand how this ordinance has saved lives, by keeping youth off the streets when they might otherwise commit crimes. Commissioner Swati Avashia, on the other hand, said that it seemed like the program operated on a guilty until proven innocent presumption. McMahon agreed, emphasizing that the ordinance ended up punishing working-class youth who might be out late because of work, lack of transportation or an unsafe home environment.

Commissioner Joe Miguez asked the presenters if they had any ideas as far as alternative measures to address youth crime. Local motivational speaker Sugar Ray Destin Jr. said that if the city could offer 24-hour recreational spaces in the areas most affected it could provide youth with constructive avenues.

“In San Antonio, there’s a safe house that provides youth services for the kids that are out (at night),” Destin said. “I think tax dollars would be better spent towards providing (support) services.”

McMahon said she would initiate a working group with the presenters and other stakeholders to consolidate information and bring a formal proposal for a vote at next month’s meeting.

Photo by J90NEPNJMM at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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