Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Victory! Madison Common Council votes down restrictive youth curfew change

On Tuesday, May 5 the Madison Common Council heard testimony regarding proposed changes in the youth curfew ordinance. The proposed changed received previous feedback through the Equal Opportunities Commission: the ACLU of Wisconsin submitted comments to the EOC about our opposition to curfews in general and to the criminalization of legal activity for youth in particular.

At the May meeting, ACLU of Wisconsin Board President Erik Guenther gave a testimony that outlined how curfew violations could impact young people’s future job and educational prospects. He also articulated the Orwell vs. Rockwell image of police that was on the minds of many curfew change opponents: curfew enforcement adds to the perception of youth that police are more like characters out of a George Orwell novel rather than a Norman Rockwell painting. By criminalizing otherwise legal behavior, we instill a lack of trust in both youth and law enforcement.

During Guenther's presentation, when his time expired, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said "Keep going. This is good, keep going." Alders could be heard laughing because of the rarity of the Mayor allowing speakers to exceed their allotted three minute limit.

Watch the Madison City Channel video on your preferred media player here - Guenther's testimony can be seen starting approximately at time marker 4.13.

Several council members supported getting rid of the curfew ordinance outright. Ald. Brian Solomon made a substitute motion for curfew elimination. A second substitute, by Ald. Schumacher, won the prevailing vote. That substitute revised the ordinance to keep the same hours (11pm Sun.-Thurs.; midnight Fri., Sat. for minors 17 and younger) and included an exception for returning home from work, organized school activities and faith-based group or community-based group events.

Media coverage:
The Capital Times gave an in-depth review of the curfew discussion at the Common Council meeting. The website for Channel 3000 also had a summary that noted the ACLU testimony and you can check out their video (stick through the commercial) to hear from youth who are interviewed about the issue. The Wisconsin State Journal had a more abbreviated summary.

The ACLU of Wisconsin opposes curfews based on the status of individuals engaged in otherwise lawful activity. The changes that were proposed to create an earlier juvenile curfew in the City of Madison would make a bad ordinance worse.

While the Wisconsin Supreme Court recognized the constitutionality of curfews (a decision made about the temporary curfews imposed on Milwaukee streets during the civil unrest of the ‘60s), it is the position of the ACLU of Wisconsin that curfew laws deny the constitutional rights of due process, freedom of movement and equal protection. Only in emergency cases of the protection of public safety are temporary curfews justified.

Juvenile curfew laws inherently discriminate against young people and give police unlimited discretion to give citations or even arrest youth engaged in otherwise non-criminal or constitutionally protected freedoms. Limits on young people's freedom of movement should come from parents, not police.

Police already have the power to stop a young person based on reasonable suspicion that they have broken or are about to break a law. Like loitering laws, curfew ordinances criminalize youth movement outside of their homes, even if they are not breaking any other reasonable laws.

Curfew laws treat young people like criminals when they have not committed a crime. This breaks the trust between youth and law enforcement, reinforces a belief that the criminal justice system is biased and inconsistent, and creates costly punishments that disproportionately impact low-income families.