Worried about youth crime, New Jersey city revives curfew (2024)

NEWARK, N.J. – When officials in Newark noted a recent increase in violent crime in their city, they were especially concerned about teenagers, both as perpetrators and as victims.

They turned to an old-fashioned idea to keep young people out of trouble: an overnight curfew that had been on the books since 1992 but had gone largely unenforced.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in a recent interview. “The things we do in Newark are sometimes because we don’t have a choice. Other municipalities may not experience the problems we’re experiencing.”

The rules prohibit most unsupervised youths from venturing more than 100 yards from home between 11 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. For the past few weeks, the city has enforced the curfew on Friday and Saturday nights. After school lets out for the summer, it will be enforced on weeknights, too. The rules apply to anyone younger than 18.

Baraka, a Democrat who is running for governor next year, has heard growing worries from residents who have encountered young people on the streets late at night – “at times that seem outrageous to me, like 1 or 2 in the morning,” he said.

Occasionally, he said, minors out late at night have run away from home. And in some cases, he said, public safety officials believe that young people are being directed by adults in criminal enterprises. “Adults are using these minors in incidents,” he said. “We want to disrupt that.”

Newark, the largest city in New Jersey with a population of more than 300,000, has experienced a 13% increase in violent crime through mid-May compared with the same period last year, according to the Newark Public Safety Collaborative, a group based at Rutgers University that analyzes public-safety data. Property crime is down broadly, but theft from cars has increased by 46%.

Two of the most high-profile recent crimes involved young victims, though they did not happen late at night.

Last fall, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the shoulder outside Central High School in Newark, after students had been evacuated because of a reported gas leak. Police said the shooter was driving by in a car.

In March, two teenagers were injured in a shooting outside West Side High School in Newark; a third person was hurt while fleeing the scene.

In recent months, teenagers in Newark have been involved in incidents involving gun possession and joyriding in stolen cars, city officials said.

Youth curfews enacted to deter crime date back to the late 19th century. The National Youth Rights Association has counted 400 such laws in effect nationwide. Last year, Baltimore and a dozen other cities or counties enacted them or brought them back, according to The Marshall Project.

In Newark, the early going has been slow. The first weekend of the curfew netted three offenders. During the second weekend, officers picked up only an 11-year-old girl with autism who had wandered away from home in nearby East Orange, New Jersey. In the third week, they brought a single juvenile home to his parents.

City officials say their enforcement of the curfew is significantly different from decades ago. “We’re figuring out ways to make it more about community and less about law enforcement,” said Lakeesha Eure, Newark’s deputy mayor for public safety.

First-time violators are taken home or, if no adult is there, are brought to Newark’s Re-Engagement Center, which was recently opened to connect young people with educational and job opportunities. Counselors there can call home and arrange for a parent or guardian pickup.

Second-time violators are brought directly to the Re-Engagement Center. Three or more violations get teens and their families a referral to the state’s Office of Child Protection and Permanency.

No one is chased through the streets or arrested solely for violating the curfew, Eure said. A visit to the Re-Engagement Center works out well for some. Two youths picked up the first weekend of the curfew filled out applications for summer employment, she said. “Some need very basic things, like food or clothing or bus tickets.”

“The ultimate goal is to turn nothing into something, to turn risk into opportunity,” Eure said.

The new policy has not been universally embraced, even by adults.

“It’s our firm belief that young people should always have the right to be out in public with their friends or families,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. A curfew, she said, “targets them because of their status as young people, not because of any criminal behavior.”

Fajardo acknowledged that Newark had worked to focus on nonpunitive safety efforts. But, she said, “interactions with police can escalate, and that can happen quickly, and it can have long-lasting implications.”

The Ironbound Community Corp., a local social services group, opposes the curfew on similar grounds. “We’re concerned anytime we’re exposing police to our youth,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, its deputy director of organizing and advocacy. “It often leads to bad experiences.”

There is also significant debate about how effective overnight curfews are in fighting criminal activity. In 2022, the National Center for Juvenile Justice reported that violent crimes committed by youth peaked after 3 p.m., hours before curfews often begin, and declined hour by hour until 5 a.m.

At the Newark Re-Engagement Center on a recent afternoon, Baraka was shooting hoops with two 16-year-olds, Tymir Wilson and Jarvin Bautista. Both were there because of conflicts at school. Instead of dropping out, they were routed to the center to finish the semester. In the fall, they will be enrolled in new high schools.

Both said they appreciated the chance to finish out the school year in a more relaxed setting, where they can complete their school work in a space outfitted with counselors, free snacks and old-school Pac-Man machines. But as much as the teens like hanging out there, neither could summon much support for the curfew.

“Kids are going to do whatever they want to do, no matter what time it is,” Jarvin said.

Tymir agreed. “I don’t think it’ll do much,” he said. As teenagers, “we’re still going to do our thing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Worried about youth crime, New Jersey city revives curfew (2024)

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