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South Street curfew criminalizes normal youth behavior | Opinion

The City should work with advocates and youth to offer supportive services, rather than penalties and punishments that can harm youth for life.

Corner of 4th and South streets.
Corner of 4th and South streets.Read moreWILLIAM BENDER / Staff

Last week, Philadelphia police announced that they'd begin enforcing a curfew for minors along the popular South Street corridor. Minors 13 and older need to be home by 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight Friday and Saturday. For those under 13, the curfew is 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The South Street corridor youth curfew criminalizes normal youth behavior and harshly exposes youths and their families to steep penalties and long-lasting legal ramifications. With enforcement focused on an area where many black and brown youths spend their time, this curfew unfairly targets and disparately impacts young people of color from poor families.

>> READ MORE: Teenagers be warned: South Street curfew in effect

Young people of color are already over-criminalized. Research shows that youth of color do not commit crimes at higher rates than their white peers. However, black youth were 3.64 times more likely to be arrested and prosecuted in juvenile court in Philadelphia in 2015 than their white peers. According to the Burns Institute for Justice, Fairness and Equity, black and Latino youth in Philadelphia were detained at a rate five and three times higher than white youth, respectively, in 2012.

Youth curfews only exacerbate these inequities while encouraging unnecessary and potentially traumatizing police contact. If youths are found in violation of the curfew, they are detained at the police station until their parents, guardian, or an adult over 21 is able to pick them up. Any unnecessary police contact can escalate, leading to criminal records that can affect young people's chances of pursuing education, housing, and employment opportunities for the rest of their lives, or worse.

This police contact could also lead to harsh financial penalties. Youths face fines up to $300 for their first violations, an amount that most in Philadelphia are not able to pay. Being unable to pay this fine could lead to further sanctions. These fines are in direct conflict with other Philadelphia efforts to reduce the criminalization of poverty, such as reducing cash bail. Youths not picked up can be escorted to the Department of Human Services. Families who do not or cannot pick up their children when instructed can be arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child, or end up involved with the child welfare system.

Ultimately, the policy will not make Philly's streets any safer. The curfew is intended to prevent the "flash mobs" of 2009, but there is no mention of why such a harsh policy is necessary and proportionate to  current safety concerns. It is important to note that multiple South Street shop owners have stated publicly that adults, particularly inebriated adults, are more likely to create disruptions than are the young.

Preserving public order does not require police to dictate youths' freedom of movement. The city's resources could be better served if they were funneled into youth summer programming and rehabilitating long underfunded youth community centers. Young people need spaces to grow and activities for enrichment; the goal should be to keep youths occupied and engaged, not take away their civil rights.

Community Legal Services' Youth Justice Project advocates for youths to have access to the services and resources they need to thrive, rather than be criminalized and traumatized for engaging in normal adolescent behavior. We recognize that youths need support to mature and transition into adulthood. The city should work with advocates and youths to offer supportive services, rather than penalties and punishments that can harm young people for life.

Lelabari Giwa is an intern in the Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services. She is a rising 2L and Toll Public Interest Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.