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Most teens cited for violating Denver’s curfew are Latino

November 22, 2018
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ADVANCE FOR USE THURSDAY, NOV. 22 - this Nov. 16, 2018 photo, shows Barnum Park, one of the areas targeted during enforcement of Denver's juvenile curfew law in Denver, Colo.. Nearly 70 percent of the kids cited with Denver's juvenile curfew law each year are Latino. Latinos make up only 31 percent of the city's population, prompting questions about its fairness and effectiveness. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via AP)

DENVER (AP) — Rosa sat, trembling slightly, in a fourth-floor courtroom in downtown Denver. She wore a black sweatshirt printed with the word AMERICA. She was waiting for a translator for her mother.

Other kids were in the half-full courtroom for destroying property or fighting. But Rosa, 17, was in trouble because she stayed out too late in Denver.

Police picked her up on a summer night in Barnum Park, where she was eating McDonald’s with friends after getting off work. Officers sent her in a white van to a downtown building, where she waited for her mother to be roused.

“That was annoying,” Rosa said later. “They could have just told me to go home.”

She was one of hundreds of young people cited this year for violating Denver’s juvenile curfew. She’s also Latino, like 67 percent of the kids cited this year, according to a Denver Post analysis. Latinos make up only about 30 percent of the city’s overall population and 41 percent of the 15- to-17-year-old population, according to Statistical Atlas’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Many defendants can avoid legal consequences by finishing a months-long program. For others, the consequences can include fines and a permanent mark on the offender’s record — even as there’s a growing question about the benefit of curfews. Austin, Texas, ended its own curfew last year amid questions of ethnic bias.

“Curfew citations can be an entry point into the juvenile justice system, which can have lasting consequences on young people,” Nick Mitchell, the city’s independent law enforcement monitor, wrote in a statement responding to The Post’s findings. “These data raise concerns about where and how the curfew ordinance is being enforced, which should prompt a broader public discussion and evaluation of the curfew program.”

Councilman Paul López, a longtime representative of Denver’s west side, also has called for changes.

“It’s a dragnet, and it’s not right,” López said at a recent meeting.

Public records show that the program’s focus on Latino neighborhoods has grown sharper in recent years — with a special emphasis on Cinco de Mayo and other holidays — while other areas have seen much less enforcement.

“I’m absolutely perplexed by the numbers,” López said. “The numbers here suggest that if you happen to be a Mexican kid living in Denver, then that’s a crime.”

“Nothing good happens to kids after 11”

By Rosa’s telling, she was out just before midnight. She had finished work at Wendy’s, met some friends and picked up food from McDonald’s.

They settled in at Barnum Park, just off Federal Boulevard. They didn’t plan to stay long, she said, but she wanted to relax after her late shift. “I was going to stop to eat,” Rosa said just after a hearing in juvenile court on a recent Thursday afternoon.

Because they are juveniles, The Denver Post is not using the full names of those accused of curfew violations. It was not possible to independently verify their accounts because court and police documents for underage suspects are not public records.

City officials say the curfew program keeps kids safe — “nothing good happens to kids after 11 p.m.,” as the refrain goes. It can identify young people who need help with other issues, they say.

“Basically, we try to identify the underlying issues,” said Tiffany Vu, a manager for Denver Public Safety’s youth programs. “Sometimes they say, ‘I just want to have fun.’ Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t want to be at home because Mom is abusive, Dad’s an alcoholic.’”

The curfew goes into effect at 11 p.m. on school nights and midnight on weekends. It’s effective year-round, but police deploy overtime curfew patrols only from April to September. Several neighboring cities have youth curfews, too.

Offenders may be enrolled in a diversion program, which can involve mentoring, community service, academic monitoring and more for up three to six months.

But magistrates also warn juvenile defendants that a guilty plea can hurt them in immigration proceedings, and in some cases a curfew charge results in an adult court record or even a warrant.

“They’re exactly the kind of policies we need to be scrutinizing heavily if we’re concerned about racial bias in policing and improving trust between communities of color and police,” said Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor and criminal justice researcher at Texas A&M University who has studied curfews.

“At this point, there is truly no good evidence that these policies improve public safety, and my own research shows it makes it worse.”

The start of Denver’s youth curfew

Then-Mayor Wellington Webb introduced Denver’s modern curfew law in 1994, after the city’s so-called Summer of Violence, mirroring a national response to fears of youth crime and gangs. Instead of $33 tickets, police would take kids to recreation centers and cite their parents.

From the beginning, questions of ethnicity and location dominated the debate.

Residents of Washington Park protested the holding station in their neighborhood, complaining that it attracted unwanted people. Others said the program quickly resulted in disproportionate Latino arrests.

“The first couple years, I have to admit, I wasn’t very happy, because Chicano youth and Latino youth are affected more than any other group,” said Cisco Gallardo, one of the first employees of Webb’s youth program.

“But I’ve also seen the good stuff, too.”

In some years, the curfew’s results were more ethnically balanced than today. From 2008 to 2011, police cited nearly equal numbers of Latino and white kids. Officers reported curfew violations all across the city, including downtown and eastern Denver.

But it didn’t last. Enforcement today is focused much more tightly along Federal Boulevard, while police have made few arrests on the 16th Street Mall and other former hot spots.

As a result, Latinos have made up nearly 70 percent of curfew arrests in each enforcement period since 2014. Meanwhile, young black people made up about 9 percent of recent curfew violations — roughly proportional to the population split.

“I can go all over this city and see a whole bunch of young people on 16th Street Mall. I see a whole bunch of kids on East Colfax,” López said at a council committee meeting in June. “I just wonder, why this area of town, and why this demographic?”

Cmdr. Marcus Fountain, who worked in curfew enforcement at the time, said the program simply follows the problems.

“As you all know, particularly in certain areas of the city, we have a lot of juvenile activity,” Fountain told council members. “And I think one of the ideas of the curfew program is to try to get ahead of that — try to get ahead of kids getting arrested for other things.”

Fountain acknowledged that the department has deployed extra curfew runs during Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican military commemoration. A Denver Post analysis found that there have been a total of 26 curfew tickets on Cinco de Mayo nights since 2014, compared with 16 on Fourth of July nights. The holidays fell on an equal number of weekdays and weekends.

The program also has struggled to pay enough overtime hours for officers to patrol the entire city, leading to a focus on complaint-heavy areas in southwestern and southeastern Denver, according to Lt. Marion Penn.

The consequences

Young people often have good reason to be out late, community leaders say. They might be avoiding problems at home, or working because their families need money.

“A lot of our kids are affected by that issue,” said Candi CdeBaca, a Denver City Council candidate. “A lot of young people are forced to take on economic opportunities and contribute to their household income.”

Curfew rules excuse young people who are heading home from jobs and other activities, but they don’t allow for any stops.

One recent curfew violator, a 17-year-old named Ryan, said she was picked up while she stopped for an AriZona Iced Tea at a 7-Eleven on Federal Boulevard on her way home from work at a nearby Taco Bell.

“I actually lost my job,” Ryan said, waiting outside a courtroom with her mother, who had driven down from Fort Collins. Ryan, who describes herself as white with Latino ancestry, had been making $11.25 an hour — money she planned to spend on college after getting her GED, she said.

She said she felt she had to quit after receiving the ticket: “I didn’t want to risk getting caught.”

Once they’re cited, juveniles are assigned a court date during an early-afternoon weekday session.

In recent sessions, the robed magistrates in Denver’s juvenile court spoke gently with the curfew kids, who waited with their families on wooden courtroom benches or in the jury box. Some of the juveniles wore street clothes, others suits and dresses. Standing before the court, they answered questions about their lives and their troubles.

“I know that the curfew, when you’re a very young person, seems silly,” Mag. James Zobel told a 14-year-old who had been busted while walking home from his girlfriend’s house one night.

“Frankly, nothing good happens to young people after 11 p.m. in the city. It’s for your safety.”

Zobel warned the teenager that the curfew could come with consequences, especially for kids who already have records. The teen previously had been cited for fighting in school, and further problems could elevate him to a higher level of the courts.

“I do not want you to end up in state court,” Zobel said. “That could be horrible.”

The youth ultimately was punished with two days of work on a sheriff’s work crew.

Most curfew violators can avoid costs, fines and other punishment through the diversion program, which has an 85 percent completion rate — but in some cases it’s not feasible. One recent defendant told a magistrate that he didn’t finish the program because his family had moved twice.

Skipping the program can result in fines of up to $999, although it’s usually closer to $50, Vu said. One recent defendant was fined about $150 in total, including court costs. Skipping court, however, can result in an outstanding judgment warrant that can interfere with getting a driver’s license and other activities.

Questionable results

Doleac, the researcher, contends that even a well-intended program can be especially burdensome for low-income parents and kids who work hourly jobs. They often don’t have paid time off to deal with the court system.

“And for what?” Doleac said. “If this is gaining us something in public safety, then maybe it’s all worth it, but in my view, the burden of proof needs to be on the government to say this is worth all this time and energy.”

There’s been only limited research, she said, and the conclusions are contradictory. UC Berkeley professor Patrick Kline studied dozens of cities’ crime rates, finding in 2011 that youth curfews had been correlated with a 10-percent drop in youth arrests.

Doleac, in contrast, used data from gunshot sensors to show gun violence actually increases when Washington, D.C.’s curfew is in effect. She theorizes that violence becomes more common when there’s less foot traffic on the streets, or when police are distracted by curfew enforcement.

In Austin, these kinds of questions led the city to eliminate the juvenile curfew last year. Created in the 1990s, it had enjoyed broad support as a way to stop juvenile crime and protect young people.

“No one was really challenging it that much,” said Morgan Craven, a staff member of the nonprofit Texas Appleseed who works on the “school-to-prison pipeline” problem. “No one was really talking about how harmful criminalizing these kids for minor offenses can be.”

The curfew most often affected young people in east Austin — “black, Latino, poorer,” Craven said. “There were virtually no tickets in west Austin,” she said. “We thought to ourselves, that’s totally not because west Austin kids are not out at night.”

The Austin Police Department agreed to review the curfew amid community and media attention. Police officers seemed to see it as a “safeguard” — an ironclad reason to talk to a kid in a dangerous situation, Craven said.

Like Denver, Austin offered a diversion program that was meant to help defendants. But police officials found themselves unsure whether the curfew was the right way to reach those goals.

“We had a good system, I believe, in place,” said Assistant Chief Troy Gay. “The bigger topic was . ‘Why are we stopping kids to begin with? What is the purpose?’ . Was it a criminal behavior, or were they just being kids?’”

Ultimately, the Austin City Council ended the curfew in September 2017. It’s too soon to draw statistical conclusions, Gay said. But the city this year saw a 15-percent drop in juvenile crime victimization and a slight increase in juvenile arrests from January to May. He theorizes that young people may actually be safer in public spaces rather than the private homes and other places they were avoiding police at night.

The change rippled through other Texas cities, too: San Antonio decriminalized its curfew and opened a 24-hour “re-engagement center” for kids.

In Denver, council members said they wanted to take a closer look at the city’s curfew, but none have suggested a change as dramatic as Austin’s. López said he hopes that police will take a softer approach.

“Rather than taking them downtown, get them home or get their parents to pick them up,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we need to arrest anyone or detain anybody.”

Meanwhile, the defendants will keep filing into the city’s fourth-floor courtroom. After sitting through several other cases, Rosa and her mother learned that they’d have to return for another court date on another Thursday afternoon; a previous charge on her record had complicated her case.

To Rosa’s mother, it was one huge exasperation. Speaking in Spanish, she said her daughter should have known the rules. It was a common refrain for the parents in the courtroom.

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