August 8, 2013
by Steve Visser – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sharon Reese was in Snellville, preparing to pick up her nephew Jamal at the movie theater in Conyers, when he called. “You need to come right away,” he said in a subdued voice.
Nearly an hour later, she arrived to find Jamal surrounded by three police officers. He had violated the city’s curfew.
Jamal suffered the embarrassment of being detained by police that night in July, but his legal issues ended there. It was Reese whom officers ticketed for allowing an unsupervised minor to be out in public after 11 p.m. on a weekend. Potential fine: $1,000.
Curfews for children under 17 are a tactic that researchers question, but many metro Atlanta communities have them. Some local jurisdictions — such as Duluth, Lawrenceville, Marietta and Sandy Springs — don’t have specific curfew ordinances but instead use the state curfew law, which allows a minor under 17 to be cited as an unruly child if he is loitering or wandering in a public place or road after midnight.
Unlike most communities with curfews, Conyers is enforcing it and has stricter terms than most. “Parents just drop them off for a place to hang out, and they need to be home accounted for,” Conyers police Lt. A.C. Ivey said.
In July, Conyers started vigorously enforcing its ordinance, which sets curfew at 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Police have written at least 19 tickets, most of them in the shopping district near I-20.
While police reported that vandalism, fights, car break-ins and even some robberies were partly behind the crackdown — in June a 16-year-old was charged with armed robbery in a carjacking — the behavior Ivey and other officers described was more unruly than criminal.
Ivey and Officer Charlene Smith said some kids would act out in the strip-mall restaurants and the nearby Wal-Mart. The local Carmike theater banned kids under 17 from the late-night showing, they said.
“I can’t say the kids are causing a crime problem,” Ivey said. “They do become a nuisance problem for the businesses. They just wander, just wander around.”
He said he has already seen repeat offenders. He cited Brenda Ortiz for the second time at nearly midnight on July 27 — writing “2ND OFFENSE THIS MONTH” on the ticket after finding her son sitting at the Wal-Mart. Earlier in the month the son was cited near the movie theater.
The tickets rankled Ortiz, whose family viewed the enforcement as tantamount to suggesting the son was up to no good.
“Teenagers want to go out with friends,” said Ortiz’s 27-year-old daughter, Ilsle Ortiz. “It wasn’t like he was out on the streets vandalizing.”
Criminologists are skeptical about the value of curfews. They say the ordinances take police out of circulation, give a negative view of authority to adolescents who are otherwise behaving, and are often enforced so unevenly that they can lead to racial profiling. The other downside is there is little good evidence that they help bring down crime.
“This idea comes up every time somebody begins to pay attention to crime, especially youth crimes,” said Jeff Butts, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “People start looking around for solutions, and curfews come up routinely. Stopping someone who looks young means that somewhere else in your city a 911 call is getting a slower response time. It uses up a lot of resources.”
Georgia State professor Volkan Topalli said some studies have found curfews associated with a small decrease in crime, but most studies did not.
“I get why people think it is a good idea — it has a folksy logic to it,” said Topalli, whose research focuses on youth criminals. “But I don’t think the research backs it up, and I think the officer’s time can be better spent.
“It is like Midnight Basketball. The kids who are motivated to go out and do bad things are not going to play basketball anyhow.”
Butts said curfews that bring teens into contact with the juvenile justice system risk making them more delinquent, not less. “Arrested kids start down the road toward deviancy,” he said. “It makes them more brazen, more defiant. ‘You can’t control me. I don’t care about the cops.’ ”
Atlanta has a curfew that specifies that children under 17 have to be off the streets by midnight on Friday and Saturday and by 11 p.m. on other nights, but the city has only enforced it haphazardly, Deputy Chief Rene Propes said. She said officers generally take the violator home to his family.
In 2012, the APD issued 67 curfew violations to teens and 49 tickets to parents for violating their responsibility in allowing the curfew violations. This year, officers have written 49 and 67 citations, respectively.
“What happens is we will take a juvenile curfew violation home, and the parent says, ‘I can’t control him,’ ” Propes said. “We get that a lot.”
Enforcement varied wildly among jurisdictions. DeKalb County, for instance, issued 368 citations in 2011 and 222 in 2012, using the state law.
Rick McDevitt, the president of the Georgia Alliance for Children, fears that curfews could lead to racial profiling as officer gravitate to crowds of African-American kids or because officers are more aggressive at using the tool in poorer, high crime neighborhoods.
“I would say 80 to 90 percent of the kids out there are good kids,” he said. “To pass a law that targets the 15 to 20 percent unfairly penalizes the other good kids who are getting out of a movie late.”
Conyers police say the curfew prevents kids from being victims of late-night crime. In May, for instance, three teenagers were robbed at gunpoint of $150 in cash and their cellphones while walking on a city street at 11:45 p.m. A 17-year-old, a 20-year-old and and a 22-year-old were later charged with the crime.
Supporters of the curfew include many of the parents who were picking up their kids outside the Conyers Carmike theater last week.
“I think they should pick up the kids on time,” said Candy Williams of Madison, who was picking up a carload of teens outside the theater last Friday. “And if it’s past 11:30, I think they should be fined, and I think it should be heavy.”
Staff writer Chelsea Cariker-Prince contributed to this article.