Photo: Flickr user Fellowship of the Rich.

With the curfew up for regular review, the mayor has promised significant changes to the ordinance before an expected July 17 city council vote.

Houston city council heard a second round of public input Wednesday on the city's juvenile curfew ordinance. Mayor Sylvester Turner promised significant changes to the existing ordinance before the council votes on it later this month, including removing the daytime hours, lowering the maximum possible fine and diverting cases to teen court, but stopped short of saying he would support decriminalizing the Class C misdemeanor. 

"There will be recommendations that will be made to council," said Turner, who added that he intended to maintain the ordinance as a tool for law enforcement.

Introduced in 1991, the juvenile curfew ordinance was one of many enacted during what was a "dramatic surge in curfew legislation during the first half of the 1990s," according to a 1996 report from the Department of Justice. Houston's ordinance includes daytime and nighttime restrictions covering all youth under 17, though Turner said the daytime restrictions would most likely be removed entirely following changes to the state's truancy law. 

Under the city's current ordinance, children between the ages of 10 and 16 can be charged with a crime for being out in any public place between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday or 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and are also restricted from public places during the school year on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. There a number of defenses, including for youth traveling to and from work or who are accompanied by a parent or guardian or who are out running an errand for a parent or guardian. 

The police department has argued that the ordinance is necessary to help limit criminal activity by youth and to help protect youth from victimization but opponents of the current ordinance argued that police do not need a curfew in place in order to approach a teenager out late at night or to intervene if they suspect some other criminal activity is taking place.

"They absolutely have jurisdiction to approach youth if there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion," said Kristian Caballero, community outreach coordinator with Texas Appleseed, at the public hearing on June 26.

Further, research has shown tenuous support for the effectiveness of juvenile curfews. A review of 12 different studies found that "[t]he average effect on juvenile crime during curfew hours was slightly positive – that is a slight increase in crime – and close to zero for crime during all hours." In addition, the Campbell Collaboration report found that "juvenile victimization also appeared unaffected by the imposition of a curfew ordinance."

During 2018, the Houston police department issued 137 citations for curfew violations, according to data presented to the city council. Just over a third of those ended up in teen court, according to a presentation from Judge Elaine Marshall, the director and presiding judge who regularly reviews cases that might be eligible for her court. Marshall said she then notifies judges who have eligible cases on their docket and asks them to let the youth know they can have their case tried in teen court, where penalties include community service, teen court service and two-page papers.

"We don't fine the teens," Marshall told the city council. 

Turner said he expected to put forward changes to the ordinance that would instruct police officers to first attempt to take the youth home or, in the case of homeless youth, instead of writing a citation. If the young person is "resistant," Turner said, then a citation would be written and those cases would be diverted to teen court. He also promised to significantly reduce the maximum possible fine of $500.

But even going through teen court, the charge can still end up on a youth's record and there is a $30 fee to apply for expungement. "For some people, that can be an enormous barrier to overcome," said Brian Klosterboer, a lawyer with the ACLU. He also noted that the ordinance's allowable defense for youth "traveling in a motor vehicle involved in intrastate or interstate transportation," might privilege youth who are able to afford a car over those who cannot and rely on public transportation or other means of getting around.

Pushing back against earlier council concerns that the ordinance was necessary to prevent human trafficking, Destin Germany, a legal intern with Texas Appleseed, spoke in favor of decriminalizing the ordinance. "When you criminalize certain aspects of youth," he said, "it actually increases their odds of being trafficked."

Many cities have done away with or decriminalized juvenile curfews, as was the case in Austin and San Antonio respectively. In Austin, the city found that the ordinance was being used to disproportionately cite youth of color, a concern opponents of the Houston ordinance share as well. In San Antonio, the city council revised the ordinance so that instead of charging youth with a crime, police could direct youth to a case manager.

Texas Appleseed, Texas Organizing Project and the Texas Civil Rights Project all testified in favor of decriminalizing the ordinance in Houston. "They are sent to adult criminal court, may be required to pay fines, and end up with a criminal record that is permanent — greatly limiting access to jobs, housing and military service in the future," Texas Appleseed, which supports doing away with the ordinance entirely, wrote in a letter to city council members.

"We have to codify the changes that we want," said Meagan Harding, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who stressed that the ordinance should be revised in such a way as to limit discretion and should include better data tracking.

In its presentation, the police department claimed it could not separate out citations given to white youth from those given Hispanic youth. The department also reported the racial breakdown of offenders as being proportionate to the Houston Independent School District's demographic data, despite the fact that the school district boundaries do not match the city's boundaries and that that doesn't account for youth in Houston attending other school districts, private schools or who are homeschooled.

"The data we've gotten has been very minimal," said Harding.

The council is expected to vote on the ordinance in late July or early August.