Curfew only one tool against teen violence

New London - Since the Oct. 29 stabbing death of Matthew Chew, the community has been looking for ways to prevent youth violence. Discussions have included debate on whether the city's curfew should be more strictly enforced.

The curfew prohibits youths under 16 who are not accompanied by an adult from loitering from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., September through June, or from midnight to 5 a.m. in July and August. Exceptions are made in the case of an emergency or for minors who are working.

Deputy Chief Marshall Segar said that while police do enforce the 1994 ordinance, they are limited in what they can do. The curfew violator is committing only a status offense, he said, which is conduct that is not illegal but potentially could lead to a crime.

Segar added that a ticket or any other enforcement action is aimed at the parent, not the child.

"It's a tool that can be utilized effectively, but it's not a single-handed broad brush to address juvenile crime," Segar said. "Without a strong parental component, these laws are not the answer."

Recent incidents in the city illustrate that the ordinance is often not even applicable.

Chew was murdered at about 11:30 p.m., but the six teenagers arrested in connection with his death were all older than 15 and not subject to the city's curfew.

Segar also noted that the curfew ordinance could not have been invoked during a water-gun fight in July, when several adults and juveniles were arrested because the incident occurred at about 9 p.m., before the curfew takes effect.

Neither did the curfew come into play when a teenager stabbed another teen, also in July, because the group was leaving a party, which is another exception under the ordinance.

The city's law director is reviewing the ordinance, Segar said, and will pass along any suggested changes to the City Council. The ordinance needs to be updated to include 16-year-olds, and several loopholes need to be closed, he said.

For example, if a group of 14-year-olds is hanging out on the street and one member of the group is 16 or older, the group is in technical compliance with the ordinance.

Following Constitution

State law allows towns to enact local ordinances, including curfews, but local ordinances must pass constitutional muster, said state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, outgoing co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Town officials can close parks to all traffic after a certain hour, for instance, but they can run afoul of the constitutional requirement of equal treatment under the law if they try to ban certain age groups from using public spaces, Lawlor said.

"A lot of towns have them, but when they actually try to enforce them, it's a disaster," he said.

Segar said New London's ordinance is similar to one in Vernon, which was overturned by the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2003.

In that decision, the court ruled that Vernon's ordinance infringed on juveniles' rights of equal protection in that the curfew barred them from being on the streets even with parental consent.

The court said, "If a municipality wishes to signal out minors as a group to curtail a constitutional freedom, then the municipality must satisfy constitutional requirements by tying their policies to special traits, vulnerabilities, and needs of minors."

Plaintiffs Janet Ramos and her sons, Angel and Richard, challenged the constitutionality of Vernon's juvenile curfew ordinance. Angel Ramos had been detained on numerous occasions for violating the curfew.

Richard Ramos claimed his rights were violated because he was forced to rush home even though he had parental permission to be out past curfew.

Janet Ramos claimed the ordinance violated her due process right to raise her children as she saw fit.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut represented Ramos in the court case.

David McGuire, an ACLU staff attorney, said the problem with curfews is that they essentially put an entire demographic on "house arrest" for the actions of a few.

"We are sensitive to what recently happened in New London," McGuire said of the Chew murder, "but curfews offer a false sense of security, and it uses police resources ineffectively when they could be used to prevent actual crime."

McGuire said studies done on curfews show they usually don't work. He added that officers already have the authority to question people if they suspect wrongdoing.

Successful use of curfews

Some cities have used curfews successfully, albeit for a limited time period.

In August 2008, Hartford issued a 30-day emergency curfew when the city appeared to be experiencing an increase in youth- and gang-related violence.

Sgt. Christene Mertes, a Hartford police spokeswoman, said the city saw a dramatic decrease in youth crime while the curfew was enforced. She said the city was able to implement the curfew because it was temporary and met the constitutional requirements under the Vernon decision.

"The curfew was just one component," Mertes said. "We did several things to address youth violence."

The city worked on its truancy program, she said, met with youth groups and schools and educated parents and the community. Police also increased patrols during the summer.

Segar said enforcing the curfew is a drain on the police department's resources.

If a parent is not home or if a parent or legal guardian does not want to assume responsibility for the child, the police department must find placement for the child.

Placement could be sought through the Department of Children and Families or through another relative who is willing to take on the child.

Detained juveniles cannot be in police custody for more than 12 hours, and they cannot be placed in a holding cell.

"That means we have to pull an officer that should be on the streets to watch this kid," Segar said. "We have to provide them with meals or any medical care that they need."

In cases in which a parent needs help with an unruly child, Segar said, police can make a non-criminal referral to the Juvenile Court, where resources such as counseling may be offered.

"This can only work if the parent is willing to get involved," Segar said. "Parents need to go with their child to court to receive these services."

Segar said New London needs to decide if the use of the curfew ordinance should be incident-driven, like in Hartford, or if it should be applied year-round.

"It can work as long as there is a police-community partnership," he said. "If we're going to apply it consistently, then we're going to need the necessary resources.

"The public needs to be educated on what the curfew is designed to address and what is the police's role. Ultimately, it falls back to parental control."

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