Teen curfews fail to keep youngsters safe

The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago

Seandell Holliday had a goal: he wanted to live to be 21. He did not make it.

The 16-year-old Chicago student was shot and killed last month in the tourist and commercial heart of this Midwestern city, victim of an almost uniquely American plague of gun violence. Brady, the US gun violence advocacy group, says 22 children and teens are shot in the US every day.

Now Chicago has come up with an almost uniquely American (and, critics say, uniquely ineffective) solution to the problem: keeping kids like him off the streets altogether. The city has banned unaccompanied minors from the popular Millennium Park after 6pm at weekends, and brought forward a daily citywide teen curfew to 10pm from 11pm. 

Vondale Singleton, who mentored Holliday through a youth programme, says he was shocked at how Chicago’s culture of violence — especially on the south side where the teen lived — had so marked Holliday that he listed “living to 21” as a goal alongside opening a recording studio and looking after his four younger siblings. “No one has ever said that, in 20 years of teaching,” Singleton told me. “I asked him about it. He said ‘you never know when you’re going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time’.” 

On May 14, Holliday pestered his mother to go downtown to take a cousin to see “The Bean”, the sculpture that is the city’s main tourist landmark, Singleton said. “It’s the safest place for South Side kids to be, is downtown,” he said, noting that rates of violence are far higher where Holliday lived. This was not the case, however, on that Saturday evening when fighting broke out.

Under the new curfews, teens will be unable to visit Chicago’s renowned summer music festivals in the downtown parks, says Alexandra Block of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which opposes them. This will strain already difficult relations between police and teens of colour, who are stopped far more often for curfew violations, she says. Nor does she believe they will have any material impact on the urban crime that has become such a big political topic this year in the US.

“Chicago has been remarkably unsuccessful at reducing crime and violence. It goes up and it goes down, and city policies seem to have nothing to do with crime trends,” says Mike Males, senior researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Since the pandemic began, crime has risen in Chicago, as in many big US cities, with the homicide rate rising to 797 last year, its highest level in a quarter of a century.

“One reason is that they keep going back to this same failed approach: crackdowns on youth. At one time in the 1990s they were arresting over 10,000 kids a year for curfew violations and they had no results from it,” Males said.

Juvenile curfews became popular during the 1990s and in 2016 three-quarters of US cities had them, according to the Campbell Collaboration, which studies public policy. The group reviewed studies that purported to test the effects of such rules and found that though they have “common sense appeal”, they are “ineffective at reducing crime and victimisation” and on average, crime actually went up during curfew hours.

Despite this, Chicago city council members repeatedly invoked curfews’ “common sense” appeal, says Block, adding “this is more about politics than policing”. The Chicago Police Department appears to have washed its hands of the measure. When I asked them how it would be enforced, I was told to call City Hall.

Downtown crime is perhaps the hottest topic in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s re-election campaign, announced last week. Pressure on her government to “do something” about the impact of crime and violence on downtown businesses intensified after a mass shooting only days after Holliday’s death, this time near the Magnificent Mile shopping district.

Singleton echoed the sentiment so common in America today — including on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are debating nationwide gun control — “we have to do something”. But sometimes just doing something for the sake of politics — like extending curfews — distracts policymakers from evidence-based solutions, he says. Teen curfews don’t work: Chicago needs to try harder.

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