DISCRIMINATION: Youth curfews and children's rights

Summertime for children is not just about having time off school, staying up late and playing outside; it also comes with restrictions on their civil freedoms. At a time of year when children spend more time outdoors, congregating in outside spaces is often the only option they have when socialising, as their entry into indoor venues is usually prohibited because of their age. Yet every summer local authorities in some countries roll out youth curfews banning the presence of children on the street at night if not accompanied by an adult. 

Supporters of the curfews say they protect children from sights and influences that might cause them psychological and moral harm, avoid late-night public order disturbances, and prevent children from joining gangs and committing crime. On the other hand, critics say that youth curfews violate children’s freedom of movement, their right to associate with one another, and amount to age discrimination as adults are not subject to the same restrictions regardless of the nature of their late-night activities.

In this feature we look at the nature of youth curfews, examining why they are used, who they affect the most, and what they tell us about how society views children.

A question of age, not crime

Youth curfew laws typically restrict children to their homes during night-time hours. Although they vary widely across jurisdictions with respect to times, seasons, targeted locations and age groups, and punishment for violations, their aim is to remove all children within a town or city's boundaries from the streets, banning them from public spaces. Based on the perceived worthiness of some activities over others, curfew laws sometimes allow exemptions for children attending events sponsored by schools, religious organisations, or government bodies; however, these exemptions are inconsistent and far from universal.

Violations of curfew laws form part of the array of offences which only affect children. Also known as “status offences”, these are unique in that they encompass acts that would not be criminal if they were committed by adults. Aside from curfew violations, other examples of status offences include school truancy, running away, begging, bad or anti-social behaviour, gang association, and even simple disobedience. An evident contradiction in its applicability is that they target what adults consider to be problematic behaviour in children but acceptable once above the age of majority. On account of the fact that status offences do not apply to adults, it shows that a status offender's conduct is considered unacceptable not because it is harmful, but solely on the basis of the age of the ‘offender’. 

Seasonal curfew laws, like those imposed during summer months, exclusively target children because they are on school holidays and so will spend more time outdoors. Authorities partly justify summer curfews based on the assumption that allowing children to gather freely in evening and early morning hours will inevitably resort to criminal activity. Not only is this unfair, as unlawful behaviour is not exclusive to children, it is also untrue. As with the adult population, the vast majority of children are law-abiding. Yet curfews punish all children for the actions of a minority. And even for those few who might contemplate unlawful activities, there is little evidence that curfews have any meaningful effect on crime rates. What's more, adults are not subject to similar restrictions on their freedom of movement based on their presumed potential for engagement in criminal behaviour. Nor do they need to prove the worthiness of their night-time activities to be allowed outside. This selective application of curfew laws therefore means children are confined to their homes not because they threaten public safety, but simply because they are below the age of majority. 

The UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency have spoken out against these limits, asserting that status offences stigmatise, victimise, and criminalise young people. In order to prevent this, the guidelines state, ”legislation should be enacted to ensure that any conduct not considered an offence or not penalised if committed by an adult is not considered an offence and not penalised if committed by a young person.” These guidelines, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, and the UN World Report on Violence Against Children have all called for the abolition of status offences to achieve equal treatment for children and adults. 

From specific risk to ‘night-time dangers’

Another defence of youth curfews positions them as a general child protection measure. This signals a marked shift in the justification for curfews, as traditionally they have been a response to a specific risk or situation, such as during wartime or states of emergency. Nowadays, however, they are readily justified on the perceived dangers of the night.

For instance in France until 2009, curfews could only be justified by a specific risk and were limited in time as well as to specific areas of a town or city. But following the entry into force of the country’s Internal Security Law, curfews can be imposed for children under the age of 13 between the hours of 11pm and 6am, if their presence on "public streets during the night would expose them to an obvious risk to their health, security, education, or morality." Similarly in Russia, a night curfew that entered into force in 2009 bans children from public spaces during restricted hours without parents or guardians in order to protect children from “violence and criminal influence,” according to one lawmaker. In addition to not being allowed into places like restaurants, cafes or cinemas between 10pm to 6am, the curfew also prohibits children from being in the streets, visiting parks and stadiums and travelling on public transport. Meanwhile Belize City has imposed summer curfews sporadically over the past 15 years, with authorities justifying the move to protect children from criminal activities, such as abduction and indecent assaults against them.

This logic reveals how curfews on the basis of child protection target the innocent rather than the very activities that are deemed harmful to children in the first place. Conversely adults are not subject to such broad restrictions on their freedom of movement, even though the perceived harmful environment is created by adults’ late-night activities. Curfews, in this sense, are yet another example of children’s rights being restricted ‘for their own protection’. As one campaigner put it, these measures “plac[e] teenagers who have done nothing wrong under house arrest - which is, in effect, what a curfew is.”

Criminalising and stigmatising children

Even though curfew violations - like other status offences - are neither criminal nor delinquent acts, they nonetheless lead to children coming into contact with the police and exposed to the justice system. Children found in violation of a curfew are usually arrested and taken home or to a police station until they can be picked up by their parents or legal guardians. But many are also held in detention. In Panama, for example, night-time curfews across the country resulted in the detention of 877 children in one month alone in 2010 for being in public spaces outside permitted hours. Of particular concern is that many status offenders who are apprehended face a glaring lack of support because, as curfew violations are not technically criminal, the children are not guaranteed legal protections, such as legal representation and may not even have access to relatives or trusted adults.

Despite these concerns, the predominant view is that, if allowed to stay outdoors, children will be more likely to commit unlawful acts - a mentality that equates juvenility with criminality and creates social stigma towards an entire generation. As a spokesperson for the British Home Office said: "Whilst not limited to young people, 'teenagers hanging around' is a big cause of concern to the public as cited in the British Crime Survey.” Indeed, justifications for youth curfews often reinforce a view of children as a public nuisance. For instance things like littering, noise and vandalism are readily blamed on children, even though these are acts that are not exclusive to children. This was the reason given by authorities in the town of Interlaken, Switzerland, the first to impose a curfew law for under-16s in the country in 2006. 

However, the case of a 15-year-old boy from the United Kingdom who won a High Court challenge to the legality of curfew laws in 2005 emphasised the need for the presumption of innocence of all children and their right not to be subjected to police encroachment without good cause. "Of course I have no problem with being stopped by the police if I've done something wrong,” he said. “But they shouldn't be allowed to treat me like a criminal just because I'm under 16.” The rules were eventually changed so that police could only remove children from an area if there was anti-social behaviour involved. 

But if age discrimination were not enough, some groups of children face multiple forms of discrimination on account of curfew laws. Children with the lowest levels of resources, such as those living or working on the street and whose survival behaviours include begging and vagrancy, are disproportionately affected. So are children with the least available support from home or family environments and who consequently spend long hours outdoors. In addition, because police are given great discretion to question and investigate children's activities, curfew laws can lead to discrimination against minority youth. Advocates warn that curfews risk opening the door to selective enforcement similar to the racial profiling controversies surrounding the stop-and-search practices of police in countries such as France and Spain. In Kansas City, US, for example, almost three out of four youths held on curfew violations in 2013 were black, yet only 30 percent of residents are black.

Rights over removal

Debate on curfew laws and other status offences is increasingly focusing on children’s right to be in the street rather than removed from it. For instance in 2014 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child agreed to develop a General Comment on children living or working on the street, which in addition to highlighting the challenges street children face, will centre on children’s right to be in the street and their right to non-discrimination. The General Comment is set to be published in 2016.

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