Dave Helling

Teen curfews in KC punish kids just for being young

A combination of Westport Public Safety officers, Kansas City police officers and Jackson County sheriff's deputies monitored the crowd during what Kansas City police described as a typical Saturday night.
A combination of Westport Public Safety officers, Kansas City police officers and Jackson County sheriff's deputies monitored the crowd during what Kansas City police described as a typical Saturday night. skeyser@kcstar.com

Curfews for teenagers are a bad idea.

This is not the conventional wisdom, I know. Most major American cities have laws which restrict the public movement of young people, typically under 18 years of age, usually at night.

And Kansas City is no exception. During the summer, anyone 15 or under must be off the streets by 10 p.m. If you’re 16 or 17, the nightly curfew is 11 p.m.

The curfew is even earlier in five “entertainment districts”: the Country Club Plaza, Westport, the downtown business district, 18th and Vine and Zona Rosa. Minors must be out of those areas by 9 p.m. unless a parent is present.

Parents can be fined for their kids’ violations.

The idea behind the curfew is clear enough: Teenagers who aren’t on the streets aren’t getting into trouble. Kansas City’s curfew was prompted by well-publicized incidents involving teenagers at several entertainment venues.

Do they work? The evidence is quite mixed. In 2015, for example, researchers found gunfire incidents more than doubled during “marginal” curfew hours in Washington, D.C.

Other reports show similar results. “Studies of dozens of cities across the nation found no effect or bad effects following youth curfews,” researcher Mike Males wrote in 2013.

Additionally, curfews disproportionately impact minority communities. In 2014, one study showed, African-American youth comprised 15 percent of the country’s population, but 46 percent of arrests for curfew violations.

“No other racial group experienced such a great disparity in curfew arrests that year,” Sana Johnson wrote for the National League of Cities website.

Enforcing curfew laws unquestionably means additional work for police and the courts. It’s at least arguable that the time would be better spent — and the public better protected — if law enforcement spent more time prosecuting more serious crimes.

But let’s say all of these problems could be fixed: that arrests for violations would mirror demographics, that police time could be reduced, that a curfew would actually work. They’re still a bad idea.

Adults who support curfew laws often point to other age-based restrictions. You have to be 16 years old to get a driver’s license. You can’t buy alcohol until you’re 21. There are age requirements to get married, or vote, or enlist.

But those activities are largely privileges sanctioned by the broader community. Leaving one’s home, on the other hand, is an act of fundamental liberty. If you can’t walk the streets, you are not free. That’s why criminals are sent to jail.

In this case, kids subject to a curfew are denied liberty not because they’ve broken the law, but because they might break the law. That’s the essence of prejudice.

I would find this outrageous in any other context. If all men, or Democrats, or left-handed people, or the Irish, or any other groups were forced to stay off the streets for fear they might do something wrong, Americans would go crazy.

Yet age-based prejudice is perfectly OK. This sends an atrocious message to young people at precisely the moment they learn about their government and find a place for themselves in it.

There are other answers. Young people who disturb the peace or break the law are subject to arrest and prosecution. Adults could work harder to provide alternatives for young people who want to gather in the summer months.

Curfews, on the other hand, criminalize teenagers for stepping outside the door. In a free society, that’s the wrong thing to do.

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