Could Mandatory Curfew Help Philly Kids?

Blondell Reynolds Brown's new bill might be a step in the right direction

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU (remember that epithet?), I know I should be outraged by the idea of juvenile curfew as a violation of civil liberties. And perhaps if I didn’t live in Philadelphia but in Bedford Falls, I’d feel differently. As it happens, I live in a city where there’s not only a lot of violent crime, but a lot of violent crime committed by and against juveniles. It utterly changes the shape of their lives and the lives of entire communities.

There was a rape and robbery on my block a couple weeks ago. One of the kids involved was 13; the other was 18. According to various reports, the 13-year-old was scared, and when the 18-year-old began to sexually assault the victim rather than just rob her, the younger kid begged him to stop. He knew he was in way over his head now—this probably wasn’t what he bargained for when he decided to be a big man and go with the 18-year-old to rob people. The assault victim’s boyfriend told the media he hoped this child would have the opportunity to turn his life around. I do too.

At a neighborhood community meeting about the crime, Lt. McBride of the 18th District urged residents to call the cops when we see kids out after curfew. He said curfew works and the cops take it seriously. He also said that when they call the parents (usually the mothers, he said), they’re typically shocked to learn where their children are. And they’re grateful to get the calls.

I’ve never once called the cops about kids out too late. It wouldn’t occur to me. But in the wake of McBride’s comments, I thought, what if, on the evening of that rape and robbery on my block, I’d seen those kids a little earlier and had taken the time to call them in? It could have prevented a woman from being raped, an 18-year-old from committing his first sexual assault, a boyfriend from having to watch his girlfriend being raped, and a 13-year-old from being involved in criminality he wasn’t prepared for. Obviously, all four people are important here. But that 13-year-old is key: If we don’t find a way to stop these children when they’re on the cusp of getting involved in crime, we may lose them altogether. The beginning of the cycle is the best place to intervene.

There are many juveniles who wind up in jail because they go along with an older kid to seem cool and then get caught. Given that Pennsylvania is a punitive state for juveniles, their lives can be over in a flash. When such children—or any children—grow old in prison, you can think of it as wasted potential, as I do, or as a waste of resources, as more cynical folks might. Whatever your bent, sometimes it really is just about making sure a kid’s not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Curfew is about three things, as far as I can tell: 1. protecting would-be crime victims of juvenile offenders, 2. protecting juveniles from being victims of crime, and 3. protecting juveniles from getting caught up in a culture of crime. Does curfew work? I can’t find definitive research on that. But given the fact that juveniles are responsible for a significant amount of crime in my neighborhood, I’m not sure I see a downside to making the call.

I remember being very resentful about adhering to a curfew. Like many things that adults imposed upon me, it seemed deeply unfair. But nothing I did late at night after curfew was productive. We drank beer, got high, smoked cigarettes, engaged in petty vandalism and risked dangerous encounters. The longer we stayed out, the more truck we had with doing bad things. Curfew isn’t fun but I do feel that violence in this city and the culture of criminality that destroys communities is a crisis. If curfew prevents a kid from being robbed, shot or drawn into something he can’t control, maybe it’s not so bad.

Mayor Nutter’s curfew initiative was just PR, if you ask me. But perhaps Blondell Reynolds Brown’s new bill will bring renewed conversation to the subject. There are important issues that must be addressed to get this right: the slippery slope of civil liberties; the potential for racial profiling in enforcement; the role of parents who don’t want to get that call and the role of parents who do. And who’s to say staying home is safer for some kids? Maybe they’re violating curfew to spare themselves a different kind of danger.

But I think that for now, at least in my neighborhood, I will make the call if I see kids out after curfew. I don’t want to ruin their lives or mess with the good times they’re having. But I feel like protecting them is more important right now. Is that too paternalistic? Too much intrusion by the state? I’m not sure. We might have to take it one kid at a time.