Teen Curfew Debate
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With the Western Australian State Government’s introduction of the Young People in Northbridge Policy, the issue of juvenile curfews is both current and prevalent within our community. In recognising this issue as one of considerable interest, this paper introduces and critiques the Young People in Northbridge Policy and juvenile curfews more generally, leading to a statement of Outcare’s position on the matter.
Background: Responding to juvenile delinquency and offending
Both nationally and internationally, juvenile offending has consistently and pervasively been presented as a crucial area of concern among governments, their policymakers, and the general community alike. In Australia, statistics reveal that juvenile offender rates have generally been twice as high as adult ones. While the latest statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) demonstrate a significant decrease in Australian juvenile offender rates in the period from 1996–97 to 2003–04, from 3,965 to 3,023 per 100,000 per year, there has been a noteworthy increase since 2005 to 3,532 per 100,000 in 2006–07. Further, while the same statistics reveal a decrease in most offences, there has been a 48 percent documented increase in juvenile offender rates for assault in the decade from 1996–97 to 2006–07 (AIC, 2009, p. 58). These statistics serve to reinforce the importance of developing innovative responses in addressing juvenile crime, especially given that the juvenile stage represents a crucial point for intervention.
In responding to juvenile crime and delinquency, the implementation of juvenile curfew policies, which restrict the movement of juveniles in public spaces (usually nocturnally), have become an increasingly popular strategy, being revered as a means of crime prevention, harm minimisation and crime detection (Adams, 2003; Reynolds, Seydlitz & Jenkins, 2000; Simpson & Simpson, 1993). The imposition of such juvenile curfew policies has a long history in the United States, with a documented 80 percent of its largest cities and 75 percent of its moderate-sized cities, having juvenile curfew laws (Reynolds, et al., 2000). It seems Australia is following suit with most jurisdictions having enacted or at least considered such policies.
Despite their popularity, however, curfew initiatives have remained a controversial topic. On one end of the spectrum, curfew policies represent a cost-effective strategy that promises to reduce juvenile crime and victimisation. Yet on the other, they can be seen to infringe on civil rights and liberties, among other criticisms to be discussed within this paper. These arguments are particularly relevant to the Western Australian experience, with the implementation of the Young People in Northbridge Policy, which continues to draw attention even six years after its announcement. With such policies enjoying immense popularity among governments both here and abroad, it begs the question: Do they work?
The Young People in Northbridge Policy
In June 2003, the Western Australian State Government, led by Premier Geoff Gallop, implemented the Young People in Northbridge Policy, which stipulates a curfew to all unsupervised children in the Northbridge entertainment precinct. The policy prohibits children under the age of 12 from the area after sunset, and children aged 13-15 after 10pm, unless under the immediate care of a sober, responsible guardian. The policy also directs a ‘hard-line approach’ by police to all under-18-year-olds engaged in anti-social behaviour or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
With the legal position of the policy outlined in Section 41 of the Children and Community Services Act 2004 (WA), police and other authorised personnel are directed to engage unsupervised young people within the precinct and direct them to their homes (Carpenter, 2006). Those youths that are deemed to be ‘vulnerable’ are taken to the WA Police Juvenile Aid Group facility where risk assessments are completed, determining their degree of risk both within the community and in their homes. Arrangements are then made to transport the young person to a safe place (Right Track, 2009).
Gallop’s curfew policy was announced amid a climate of growing concern over a perceived deterioration in community safety in what is Perth’s premier adult entertainment precinct. These community concerns were documented in the Northbridge: Shaping the future report, released by the Department of the Premier and Cabinet (DPC) in 2002. While the domineering concern cited by the report was the increasing rate of assault within the district, the report also acknowledged “anti-social behaviour, particularly by young people” as a crucial area requiring attention, with a “particular focus on the issues relating to Aboriginal youth” (DPC, 2002, p. 3). The report concluded with a recommendation for a ‘cooperative approach’ to address crime and community safety (DPC, 2002).
In responding to these issues, the Gallop Government and the Office of Crime Prevention (OCP) presented the Young People in Northbridge Policy as a “part of a major long-term strategy to enhance the Northbridge precinct area and to the respond to the immediate problem of ‘at risk’ children and young people in Northbridge at night” (OCP, 2009, p. 1). Three years later, the Carpenter State Government reported on the success of the Young People in Northbridge Policy as documented in an operational review by the Office of Crime Prevention. The review cited a 35% reduction in unsupervised juveniles roaming the area, along with a reduction in the level of anti-social behaviour by juveniles. It also revealed an improved community confidence and support for continuation of the policy as well as improved agency and organisational operations (Carpenter, 2006).
Responses to the Young People in Northbridge Policy
Despite the apparent success of the Northbridge curfew policy, as outlined in its three-year operational review, public attitudes have revealed divided views. The policy was received with great support from Northbridge business proprietors, and given its presentation to the public as a ‘well planned welfare intervention’ (Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia (YAC), 2003), it proved to be extremely popular with the local tabloid newspaper and most radio and talkback commentary (Rayner, 2003; YAC, 2003). However, the policy was subject to major criticism from various stakeholders who revealed the government’s failure to consult with government departments and non government agencies and service providers working with young people in the inner city (Rayner, 2003; YAC, 2003). There was also concern that the government had made no provisions to inform young people of their new responsibilities under the policy (YAC, 2003).
Aside from these developmental criticisms, the Young People in Northbridge Policy has also been subject to public debate regarding its legality as well as its effectiveness as a crime prevention tool. Such public debate mirrors the reception of the Northbridge Policy’s controversial predecessor, Operation Sweep, the short-lived police-led campaign launched in Western Australia in January 1994.
In the same manner of the Young People in Northbridge Policy, Operation Sweep utilised powers under Section 138B of the Child Welfare Act 1947 to remove youth found on the streets of Northbridge (and Fremantle) at night, thereby enforcing a de facto curfew on young people. While the campaign was embraced by the City of Perth and the Northbridge Business Association, who expressed concern about “the threatening presence of young people” (Sercombe, 1999, p. 4), it was met with significant opposition within the Fremantle community. With mounting protests regarding civil rights arguments, Operation Sweep was subsequently rejected by Fremantle City Council and despite being declared a ‘success’ by then Police Minister Bob Weise it was not long before the Northbridge operation was dissolved. Many argue that the current Young People in Northbridge Policy should receive the same fate.
Arguments for curfew policies
The popularity of the juvenile curfew lies with the notion that curfews make the streets safer, a compelling public interest amid perceptions of the increasing ‘juvenile crime problem’ (Adams, 2003). The rationale behind this reasoning is derived from the curfews’ two principal stated purposes. That is, by restricting the presence of juveniles in public during specified hours on a continuing basis, juvenile curfews can firstly, effect a reduction in juvenile crime by preventing and deterring the commission of crime during these hours, and secondly, protect young people themselves from becoming the victims of crime during these hours (Brown, 2000; Simpson & Simpson, 1993). In this way, curfew policies reflect a straightforward application of opportunity theory and commonsense thinking which denotes that juveniles are less likely to commit crimes and to be victimized if they are not on the streets (Adams, 2003; Reynolds, et al., 2000).
Further, by directing police and other authorities to engage juveniles, curfew policies not only increase the tools of crime detection but also allow for the early identification of children who are at high risk for criminal offending and victimization, thereby presenting a crucial opportunity for early intervention (Adams, 2003). Additionally, curfew policies can act to reinforce important social values by placing responsibility back on to parents, thus emphasising the role of the family. In doing so, curfews place particular emphasis on, and encouragement of, parental responsibility, influence and control, as well as the strengthening of family networks and supports (Adams, 2003; Brown, 2000; Simpson & Simpson, 1993). From this perspective, curfew policies can go beyond the representation of a simple instrument of crime control by providing an opportunity to address crucial social issues and welfare needs. In this way, curfew policies can be seen to be attractive both politically and philosophically (Adams, 2003).
Arguments against curfew policies
Despite the seemingly obvious political and philosophical persuasions of juvenile curfew policies, little is known about their effectiveness. While reviews of the Young People in Northbridge Policy have revealed positive results, as reported by the Western Australian State Government, the limited empirical research that is currently available (conducted mostly within the United States) have generally indicated that curfews don’t work (Adams, 2003; Reynolds, et al., 2000; YAC, 2003).
In a systematic review of ten quasi-experimental studies of juvenile curfews, Adams (2003) found that overall the weight of the scientific evidence fails to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization. Adams (2003) acknowledged that while it was possible to draw on a single study or several studies to show that curfews work, a more comprehensive review of the research indicates that “curfews generally do not produce statistically significant changes in crime and that when such changes are observed, they are almost equally likely to be increases in crime as opposed to decreases in crime” (Adams, 2003, p. 144).
Beyond this lack of empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of curfews as a strategy of crime control, curfew policies have also been criticised as a superficial ‘quick fix’ response to juvenile offending that inappropriately infringes on important civil rights and liberties and further, can be subject to discriminatory enforcement (Adams, 2003; Simpson & Simpson, 1993).
A superficial response?
The Young People in Northbridge Policy has been labelled by opponents as a policy “devoid of any substance” (Mac Arthur, 2007, p. 3), representing a superficial governmental response to anti-social behaviour in Northbridge generally, and among juveniles more specifically. In supporting such claims of superficiality, there are four major arguments:
Firstly, while the Northbridge curfew targets young people under the age of 18, statistics from the Crime Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, published in the Northbridge: Shaping the future report, indicates that 71 percent of serious and common assaults in Northbridge are perpetrated by adults in the age group of 18 to 34 years (DPC, 2002, p. 28). These statistics are mirrored by research conducted by Mission Australia that identifies 70 percent of crime in the curfew area as being perpetrated by adults not juveniles. Furthermore, according to Mission Australia, there had been no documented upsurge of crime by young people in Northbridge. In fact, in the 12 months prior to the commencement of the Northbridge curfew, youth incidents resulting in arrest were on the decline (Mission Australia (2002), cited in Koch, 2003).
Secondly, curfew opponents have highlighted that police already had access to, and utilised Section 138B of the Child Welfare Act 1947, on a needs basis (Mac Arthur, 2007; Rayner, 2003; YAC, 2003). While Section 138B of the Child Welfare Act 1947 has since been repealed and replaced with Section 41 of the Children and Community Services Act 2004 (WA), both Acts similarly provide police with powers to detain unsupervised children where there is a belief that their wellbeing is in danger. With the pre-existing availability of these powers, it has been suggested that the implementation of the Northbridge curfew was nothing more than an aggressive and targeted application of the Act, driven by the Government’s political agenda as champion of law and order (Koch, 2003; Mac Arthur, 2007; Rayner, 2003; YAC, 2003). As a senior official with the WA Police Service media department commented:
[The curfew] was a highly politicised decision where the government of the day wanted to be seen to be doing something about anti-social behaviour in Northbridge, whereas the police in summary took the view that, look, we’ve always apprehended people under the Child Welfare Act anyway, so call it a curfew, call it whatever you like, but we’re just going to keep doing what we’ve always done. … Really it was business as usual for the police. (Mac Arthur, 2007, p. 3)
A third argument for the superficiality of the Northbridge curfew lies with the issue of displacement. Basically, as a situational crime prevention method, it is argued that curfews may merely move or displace crime to a time and/or place where the curfew is not in effect, thereby severely limiting the net reduction in crime achieved (Adams, 2003; Hesseling, 1994; Town, 2001). While investigations into the displacement effects of curfews are limited, the available research suggests that there is merit to these claims. Such research reveals that juveniles may alter their patterns of offending behaviour to accommodate a curfew, with evidence of both geographic and temporal displacement (Adams, 2003; Hesseling, 1994).
Finally, and most importantly, it has been argued that the Northbridge curfew policy criminalises welfare issues while fatefully ignoring the underlying causal factors of juvenile crime (Mac Arthur, 2007; YAC, 2003). The Gallop Government denied such arguments by stating that “the curfew is not a ‘stand alone’ policy but part of a broader, more comprehensive strategy to make Northbridge safer for all users” (Gallop, 2003, June 26). Accordingly, in 2004 the Gallop Government announced various parent support programs among other initiatives and funding allocations aimed at helping and protecting children involved in risky and anti-social behaviour. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the curfew policy itself has more of an immediate interest in coercion and control, with its primary purpose being to simply eliminate the presence of young people on the streets in Northbridge.
In relation to these welfare arguments, curfews have also been critiqued on the basis that they are implicitly founded in naive assumptions, particularly that parents or caretakers are responsible providers, and that the home is a safe and secure place for young people (Adams, 2003; Simpson & Simpson, 1993). However, such assumptions may not always be realistic. It has been argued that the home can be a dangerous place for some young people, for example, in terms of family violence, or where parents themselves engage in a cycle of offending. Importantly, it is most often children subject to these circumstances who are at high risk for delinquency (Adams, 2003). Furthermore, it has been asked: “What role does the enforcement of a curfew play regarding homeless youth?” (Simpson & Simpson, 1993, p. 198).
These issues highlight the fact that the presence of young people on Northbridge streets at night cannot be viewed without raising issues of youth homelessness and disadvantage. As Simpson and Simpson (1993, p. 198) declared in their analysis of curfews as a method of juvenile crime-control in Australia: “those most in need of social support will be those most likely to be subjected to a curfew and those most likely to fail its conditions”. Given this, it is evident that a greater concentration on the structural factors which lie behind juvenile crime is necessary.
In summary, the superficiality of the Northbridge curfew is evident in: 1) its apparent disregard for actual crime statistics, 2) its appearance as a politically ‘dressed-up’ policy lacking substance due to the pre-existence of its parameters, 3) its limitations in preventing the mere geographic and temporal displacement of the crime which it has intended to reduce or prevent, and 4) its failure to address underlying social welfare issues that may lead young people to be on the streets in the first place. In light of these arguments, it seems that overall, curfew policies serve no purpose other than to perpetuate the negative stereotyping of all young people regardless of their behaviour (Mac Arthur, 2007; YAC, 2003). In this way, it is argued that curfews ‘demonize’ young people, “paint[ing] [them] in the public domain as a threat or at best potentially threatening and unwelcome in their own city” (YAC, 2003, p. 3).
Civil rights and liberties
As a means of curbing juvenile crime, curfews overtly exert control over juvenile behaviour in its entirety by prohibiting their presence in public spaces (Walsh, 2002). For this reason, the validity of curfews has been questioned on the basis that they conflict with the fundamental rights and liberties upon which democratic societies such as Australia are based (Brown, 2000; Simpson & Simpson, 1993; Walsh, 2002). Further, by imposing on young people’s freedom of movement, along with their freedom of privacy, association, assembly and travel, juvenile curfews can be seen to ignore various international human rights instruments to which Australia is a party (Simpson & Simpson, 1993).
However, the issue of juvenile rights is a complex matter. While it is recognised that the rights and liberties afforded to juveniles do not (and should not) equal those extended to adults, juveniles nevertheless indisputably have rights worthy of protection (Brown, 2000). According to Brown (2000, p. 671), the issue, then, is “not whether juveniles have rights to be protected, but how these rights compare to those of adults and how much power the state can wield over juveniles”. In response, it is suggested that the state exercises greater power over juveniles since their well-being is a subject within the state’s power to regulate (Brown, 2000). Regardless, the imposition of a juvenile curfew is clearly in breach of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the Australian government in 1990, which seeks to protect children from arbitrary arrest or detention by compelling the principle of detention as a ‘last resort’ (Rayner, 2003).
As well as infringing on the rights of juveniles, it is also argued that juvenile curfews infringe on the rights of parents to raise their children without undue state interference (Brown, 2000; Simpson & Simpson, 1993). In doing so, curfews go beyond a means of controlling juvenile behaviour by also becoming a mechanism whereby families can be regulated through the manner in which they reinforce a particular view of appropriate family behaviour, particularly regarding the role of the family with respect to the care of children (Simpson & Simpson, 1993; Walsh, 2002). By instilling a particular definition of ‘correct’ family conduct it is suggested that curfews deny the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children and in this way they may violate family autonomy (Simpson & Simpson, 1993).
Overall, it seems that despite their reliance on legislation designed for the care and protection of children, curfews such as the Young People in Northbridge Policy, appear to have more of an immediate interest in coercion and control, to the extent that they can be seen to infringe on the rights and liberties of the subject population that they are meant to protect (Cunneen, 2007; Sercombe, 1999; Simpson & Simpson, 1993).
In addition to difficulties regarding civil rights and liberties, curfews have also been criticised for their susceptibility to racial discrimination. It is argued that while curfews are expressed to target all juveniles equally, in practice this is not always the case (Rayner, 2003). In the Western Australian experience it is clear that Aboriginal youth have borne the brunt of the Young People in Northbridge Policy. Statistics cited by Koch (2003) report that from the curfew’s inception on 23 June 2003 to 14 September 2003, 285 Aboriginal youth were detained, compared to only 39 non-Indigenous youth. Similarly, statistics from Mission Australia reveal that 75-85 percent of those apprehended under the Northbridge curfew policy are Aboriginal (Mac Arthur, 2007). Further, the majority of these are Aboriginal females aged between 13 and 15 (Carpenter, 2006; Mac Arthur, 2007).
It has been suggested that such statistics may be a mere representation of the proportions of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal young people on Northbridge streets (Rayner, 2003). Yet even if this is the case, it is argued that curfews are still ‘indirectly’ discriminatory in the manner that they have a disproportionately adverse impact on one particular racial group. However, there have also been indications of direct discrimination through discriminatory enforcement. It has been argued by various Aboriginal and youth groups that, due to “systematic racism within our society” (Koch, 2003, p. 7), Aboriginal youth are often subjected to increased monitoring and surveillance by police, along with the general public (Koch, 2003; Mac Arthur, 2007; Rayner, 2003). Subsequently, Aboriginal youth often do not go unnoticed on Northbridge streets, and as a research fellow at the University of Western Australia Crime Research Centre was quoted: “You’re bound to find more if you look more” (Mac Arthur, 2007, p.3).
Nevertheless, the Western Australian State Government has denied the racially discriminatory nature of the Young People in Northbridge Policy stating that it was not discriminatory to ‘crack down’ on offenders. “In this case, they were children who might be in need of care and protection, even if they happened to be overwhelmingly Aboriginal children” (Rayner, 2003, p.9).
Outcare agrees that the Northbridge entertainment precinct is not an appropriate environment for unsupervised children during the late night and early morning hours, especially given its nature as a ‘crime hotspot’. However, Outcare takes the position that the presence of unsupervised children in Northbridge presents an issue of social welfare, rather than one of crime control. From this perspective, it is crucial that initiatives are directed towards the care and protection of these children. While the Young People in Northbridge Policy has been presented by the State Government as an initiative towards these means, it is obvious that simply banning children from a public space, even one which presents an inappropriate and possibly dangerous environment, is not enough. Not only is there evidence that such a limited response may be ineffective as a method of crime control, it also fails to acknowledge the structural factors which reduce the quality of life for many young people and contribute to the incidence of juvenile offending.
As such, Outcare places emphasis on the social welfare aspects that should accompany juvenile curfews. It is these developmental accompaniments, rather than the coercive aspects of curfews, that contribute to the success of such polices (Cunneen, 2007). It is important to note here that Outcare is strongly against the unnecessary criminalisation of children and further, highly regards the principle of inclusion, values that seem to be disregarded by juvenile curfew policies. Further, given the pre-existence of the Child Welfare Act 1947 and the current provisions under the Children and Community Services Act 2004, Outcare takes the view that there is no rational need for the Northbridge curfew.
However, beyond the curfew debate, the discussions presented here have outlined the importance of responding to the welfare needs of juveniles. In doing so it seems that curfews may present an opportunity to identify children and families who can benefit from social services. The identification of these individuals, in a manner that necessarily emphasises welfare needs, with the expansion of the range and availability of local social welfare services, and increased liaison initiatives between enforcement and welfare agencies, may be a first step to providing some substance to the Young People in Northbridge Policy and improving responses to juvenile crime.
This discussion paper has demonstrated that juvenile curfew policies may be attractive as an instrument of both crime control and social policy, with promises to reduce juvenile crime and victimisation, while possibly encouraging parental responsibility and family cohesiveness. Nevertheless, the use of curfews remains to be fraught with difficulties. They offend basic civil rights, are open to discriminatory enforcement, and their effectiveness is questionable. Further, independently, curfews fail to address the broader social issues of juvenile crime.
As stated by the Western Australian Government’s Office of Crime Prevention, “Our children and young people are the future of our State. They require nurturing, support and protection to ensure that they achieve personal success and make a valuable contribution to society” (OCP, 2009). While this is true, it is apparent that the imposition of a curfew will not achieve this purpose. In fact, given the evidence, a curfew, on its own, may simply act to perpetuate the negative stereotyping of children along with the seemingly over-exaggerated fear of young people. Consequently, it is fundamentally important that curfew policies go beyond coercive and controlling methods. A multi-faceted approach is necessary; not only reducing the opportunity for crime, but also offering developmental support that can adequately address the multiple social disadvantages that young people may experience. A simple curfew without more is likely to fail.
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