By Amira Hairston
It was 12:20 a.m. on a warm October night on Benning Road, Southeast, Washington D.C. The street was dimly lit with streetlights. Twenty residents were hanging out like it was a summer night. Cars drove up and down the street. People hung out on porches or strolled down the sidewalk. Groups of young adults lounged in cars and talked in groups Children ran yelling and screaming in fun, up and down the street.
Not one person seemed concerned about the youth curfew law.
“I ain’t neva heard of no youth curfew,” said Derrick Jones, one of the teens that was hanging out that night. “Even if I did, I wouldn’t care cuz it don’t apply to me.”
But it does apply to Jones. He is only 16.
Washington D.C.’s curfew is formally known as the Juvenile Curfew Act of 1995 and according to the Metropolitan Police Department website, “persons under the age of 17 cannot remain in or on street, park or other outdoor public places, in a vehicle or on the premises of any establishment within the District of Columbia during curfew hours, unless they are involved in certain exempted activities.”
While Baltimore City strengthened its curfew, Washington, D.C., only 54 miles from Baltimore, has not changed its less restrictive curfew since 1999.
The District’s curfew hours are as follows: during the school year, anyone under 17 has to be inside at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 12:01 on weekends. During the summer, the curfew starts at 12 a.m. Baltimore’s curfew is two hours earlier for those under 14 and one hour earlier for those under 17.
The District also has more exemptions than Baltimore, with eight exemptions for the curfew hours. These exemptions include: accompanying a parent or guardian, completing an errand by the direction of a parent or guardian, being involved in an emergency and working or returning home from a job.
During the holidays and summer months, curfew violators in the District are taken to one of the two curfew centers, but outside those time frames, police either take them home or hold them until they contact a parent. If they can’t get in touch with a parent or the parent refused to arrive, the child is then placed with Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).
Baltimore only has two exemptions to its curfew. If kids are going to or returning from religious services and/or work or recreational events, they are exempt from the curfew.
While Washington, D.C.’s curfew has more stipulations to it, with the times changing on different days and different seasons, it still isn’t as strict as Baltimore’s since the many exemptions create more freedom for the youth.
“It was introduced to help prevent violence occurring to juveniles, as well as preventing them from engaging in after-hour disorder,” said David Taylor, Commander of the 6th District of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. “Youth are sometimes more susceptible to becoming involved [in violence and disorder] as their maturity level may not have reached the level where they can always make sound decisions.”
But those who the curfew actually applies to are completely unaware of its existence. “I don’t know nothing about a curfew,” said Shequan Williams, a 14-year-old Washington, D.C. native. “I have to be in before it gets dark on school nights.”
Williams says that her mom calls her and her two sisters when it’s time to go inside. She also said that she has never seen the police pick up anyone for being out late.
“My big brother is 16 and he stays out as long as he wants,” said Williams.
According to Taylor, the only way that a parent or guardian can violate the curfew law is if he or she willingly and knowingly allows the juvenile to break the law. If that happens, then that parent or guardian will be fined up to $500 or given community service and the juvenile will be forced to perform up to 25 hours of community service.
The majority of the residents that were interviewed either didn’t know anything about the curfew or knew very little.
“I ain’t hear nothing about it,” said Ebony Michaels, a Washington, D.C. resident and mother of two preteens. “But my kids know when to have themselves in the house.”
“I heard something about it,” said Anthony McKenzie, another Washington, D.C. resident. “I don’t think they enforcing it though.”
According to McKenzie, when he comes home from work at around 2 a.m. he still sees a lot of youth hanging out.
“Yep, I see a whole lot,” said McKenzie. “They all over the place. They just not in one area hanging out.”
The law was first passed in 1995, but shortly afterward, the law was challenged in court and police stopped enforcing it until the court decided whether it was constitutional. In June 1999, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared the law constitutional and police began enforcing the law in the Fall of 1999.
Interestingly, the right to assembly hasn’t come up as a legal concern in Baltimore. There, the ACLU is focused on disproportionate minority contact with the justice system and parents complain that it is a violation of their right to parent as they choose.
Another concern with the Baltimore curfew has been how the officers were trained to handle the youth. The youth aren’t supposed to be treated like criminals when the police pick them up. They aren’t supposed to be handcuffed or placed in a police car. The same conditions apply in Washington, D.C. Police aren’t supposed to be aggressive with the youth either, but their training differs from that of the Baltimore City cops, who received training through watching a video.
“I must acknowledge that the source of training is not from one source,” said Taylor. “Most of the officers will receive practical experience from their daily interaction with youth and this is learned from one officer to the next.”
Taylor also says that those officers who interact with youth on a daily basis will have more specific training from places like the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and advance youth training sponsored by private stakeholders, youth seminars and training by private organizations.
According to the residents on Benning Road, police officers drive by their neighborhood on a regular basis, but they rarely stop. As long as nothing looks suspicious, they keep driving.
During the late hours on Benning Road, from midnight to 2:30 a.m., there wasn’t any trouble or suspicious behavior, there was just fun between groups of friends, family and neighbors.
The youth curfew centers are located on 801 Shepherd Street, NW, Washington, DC 20011 and 100 42nd Street, NE, Washington, DC 20019, which is the Sixth District Police Station. The centers are opened seven days a week, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.