The Austin City Council on Thursday might end the decadeslong juvenile curfew that allows police to cite minors who are found out and about late at night or during school hours.
The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to reauthorize the law. But support for ending the ordinance has been growing in recent weeks with two council members who often find themselves on the opposite sides of political issues: Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Greg Casar.
“I want to make sure that we let kids be kids and we don’t have laws on the books that unnecessarily criminalize kids for something as simple as walking down the sidewalk,” Troxclair said.
And Casar notes the citations “concentrate this harm in communities of color,” with Latinos and blacks receiving most of the tickets.
The council is expected to vote on a resolution directing city staffers to explore other policies and practices to encourage children to remain in school without imposing criminal penalties. The council will also conduct a public hearing before considering reauthorizing the curfew, which must be done every three years.
The current law allows officers to issue citations to anyone under the age of 17, unaccompanied by an adult, found in a public place or a business between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. and between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on weekdays during the school year. The crime is a class-C misdemeanor that can carry a fine up to $500, but rarely does so, according to Austin police.
Dallas, Houston and San Antonio have similar juvenile curfews. El Paso and Fort Worth also have juvenile curfews but only during nighttime hours, police said.
Casar said the law was put in place during a tough-on-crime era. A citywide nighttime curfew was first established in 1994, which was immediately followed by a nosedive in juvenile arrests.
The number of curfew violation citations given by police grew in the years that followed.
But in recent years, they have dropped. In the three-year period since the city last reauthorized the curfew in 2014, police have seen the amount of citations drop 24 percent from the previous three years, according to a recent Austin police report on the curfew.
Austin interim Police Chief Brian Manley has told the council that he supports the curfew and that it is an effective law enforcement tool.
“We do believe the ordinance is important to address the issues for which it was first put in place, and that is keeping our youth safe and especially off the streets at night,” Manley said.
At Tuesday’s council work session, Manley said his officers could stop citing juveniles on the first offense if caught during curfew hours. Council Member Ora Houston said she thought that was a good alternative to letting the curfew ordinance expire.
“You have pockets in the community where you need some intervention … and sometimes the intervention does not come from the families, it comes from maybe that warning, which I think would be a reasonable first step,” Houston said.
From 2014 to 2016, 85 percent of juveniles cited for a curfew violation were first-time offenders, while 10 percent were second-time offenders and 5 percent had violated the curfew three times or more.
Manley said that of the 2,123 curfew violation citations issued from 2014 to 2016, only 88 led to a conviction in municipal court, and of those, only a scant few led to a fine. Most ended with judges requiring the juvenile to perform community service or another alternative, he said.
The curfew has also coincided with a drop in juvenile crime in Austin in general. Juvenile arrests made up 12 percent of total arrests in Austin in the years leading up to when it was first put in place, but dropped to 4 percent in recent years, according to police.
However, Casar pointed out that the citations are disproportionately issued to minorities. Both Hispanics and African-Americans are overrepresented, while whites and Asian-Americans were underrepresented, according to data provided by Casar’s office. Citations have also more often been issued in largely minority East Austin, he said.
“These were established when there were fears of teenage super-predators, and they just served to give children criminal records instead,” Casar said. “They ultimately lead to economic and social damage.”
That the progressive Casar and the conservative Troxclair find themselves on the same side of this issue wasn’t a surprise to either of them. (The two have sparred over several issues, including funding for immigrant legal aid and the city’s legal challenge to the “sanctuary cities” ban under Senate Bill 4.)
“At the state level in the state Capitol you have seen progressive and conservatives align on the public safety,” on issues such as lessening sentencing requirements, Casar said.
Though the vote over renewing the curfew will likely not be unanimous, three co-sponsors, including Troxclair, have signed on to Casar’s resolution that would require city staffers to create a report on alternatives to criminal violations for juveniles who violate the curfew.
“I was actually kind of shocked at the number of citations that are given out,” Troxclair said. “And I’m just not sure that there is a proven correlation to a decrease in crime. If we are trying to make sure kids stay in school, there are other ways to do that than a curfew.”
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BY THE NUMBERS
2,123 — Number of Austin curfew citations issued from 2014 through 2016.
88 — Number of juveniles found guilty of violating the curfew.
$500 — Maximum fine for violating the curfew.
16 percent — The portion of citations issued to African-American juveniles, even though they make up only 8 percent of the city’s juvenile population.
60 percent — The portion of citations issued to Hispanic juveniles, even though they make up only 48 percent of the city’s juvenile population.
Source: Austin Police Department