Wrong ideas: Curfews and Incarceration

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Children are the future of any society. They are the product of human connection and are a true reflection of society’s investment in itself. Why, then, are some states in America embracing juvenile incarceration and curfews over humane and effective alternatives? Is America afraid of its youth population?

Nationwide, juvenile crime rates have been dropping. In California, according to Mike Males, Senior Research Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, ever since reliable statistics have been kept youth been less prone to commit serious or petty crime.

The statewide data demonstrate that in the 1950s juvenile arrests totaled around 9 percent of the juvenile teenage population, including 1.3 percent for felonies. Fifty years later in 2010, juvenile arrests totaled just 4.4 percent of the teenage population, including 1.2 percent for felonies. He states, “never have California youth been more numerous, more racially diverse, or of recent immigrant origin. Never have youth been more uncurfewed, uncaged, and under-served.” Yet, despite all these conventional risk factors, juvenile crime rates have plummeted over the past several decades, and it is not due to incarceration-driven policies.

In fact, over the last 15 years, California’s youth prisons and local youth jails have released more than 10,000 formerly incarcerated youths onto the streets and in 2010, California youth crime stands at an all-time low.

An Annie E. Casey Foundation report points out “the data leaves little doubt. Substantially reducing juvenile incarceration rates has not proven to be a catalyst for more youth crime.” The report presents a fresh review of juvenile justice in America and makes future recommendations for improving the system. Among its findings, the report demonstrates that America’s youth prisons are dangerous, ineffective, unnecessary, obsolete, wasteful and inadequate. None more so than California’s ailing youth correctional facilities.

There are now only four facilities remaining in California’s broken state system, and one is scheduled to close by the end of the year. The state has been engaged in reform efforts since 2004, when it signed a consent decree pursuant to a lawsuit charging it with egregious conditions of care. This has driven the exorbitant cost of operating the facilities and yet very little progress has been made in way of reform. The latest audit, filed on Sept. 8, 2011, documented a lack of basic educational services for youths with special needs or in restrictive programs.

Many other states have recognized that the incarceration of youths is counterproductive public policy and have begun seeking alternatives. Benjamin Chambers authored a review in September 2011 documenting three strategies employed across at least 24 states in the country that are reducing state incarceration of young people. Illinois is planning to close a juvenile prison, and New York is reevaluating the age at which a young person can be sent to the adult system. It is now established that a law enforcement and corrections approach to juvenile delinquency is not appropriate.

Yet, amid these positive trends of de-incarcerating youth, an archaic policing contrivance is being resurrected across America. State and local governments have been reconsidering and enforcing teen curfew laws; a mechanism focused on policing the entire youth population.

In Atlanta officials announced intentions to enforce a longstanding teen curfew ordinance in June 2011, while Chicago and Cleveland Heights, Ohio passed curfew laws this year. Philadelphia tightened its existing curfew law in early August, 2011.

In Oakland, Calif. officials have been considering adopting a curfew, known as the Juvenile Protection Act, only to defer voting on the issue in early-October. However, according to the preponderance of research, including a 1998 CJCJ report, curfews do not work. In fact, research indicates, in the past 15 years, serious and violent juvenile crimes decreased far more in Oakland without a curfew than in Long Beach and other cities that impose them.

In today’s social climate, with juvenile crime rates at an all-time low and the majority of teenagers exhibiting exemplary law-abiding behavior, it seems that our streets are safer when there are more teens on them. Males observes that “not even in London during recent riots -- and certainly not in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto or other major cities -- do police forcibly sweep young people off the streets.”

Contrary to international norms, leading data-driven research, and well-established consensus in the field, some states continue to pursue law enforcement methods of addressing juvenile crime.  This is despite the fact that juvenile crime is waning.

California (and America at large) does not need to lock up its youth. It does not need to control their movements. It needs them on the streets (filling our public space with law-abiding citizens), in the community (going to school and gainfully employed), and engaging with American society; because regardless of how they are treated by the system, they are America’s future.


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