The New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday unanimously voted to recommend passage of an ordinance that would make the city’s curfew and school attendance laws apply to anyone under the age of 18. Currently, they only apply to individuals under the age of 17. The proposal will have to be approved by the full council in a regular meeting before taking effect. 

The ordinance was brought by Council Members Jay Banks and Cyndi Nguyen, and supported by New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson, who spoke at Monday’s meeting.

Ferguson said the proposal was designed to keep young people safe and to track city code to state law. But the policy director for the city’s juvenile public defenders told The Lens that she was concerned it would result in more police stops and arrests of young Black residents and erode public trust in law enforcement.

Ferguson suggested that the change could provide NOPD with more  juvenile crime, pointing to an instance in which NOPD arrested two young people who were in possession of stolen weapons. 

“I just can’t think of a reason why why now juveniles would be out at 3 a.m. in the morning,” Ferguson said. “We recently arrested two 17-year-olds in possession of a firearm — both of which were armed with a stolen firearm at 4 a.m. in the morning.  We’re doing our due diligence and trying to ensure safety throughout our city, and more specifically with our juveniles.”

Ferguson also framed the ordinance as a measure to bring the city in line with state laws on criminal prosecutions of teenagers. In 2016, the Louisiana legislature passed the Raise the Age Act that mandated 17-year-olds be treated as juveniles when charged with a crime. That law finally went into full effect last year, and Ferguson said he was asking that the city law be amended to “reflect the same.” 

“This is not an attempt by our department in no way shape or form to arrest juveniles for being out after hours,” Ferguson said. “It is actually the opposite. This is about ensuring their safety ensuring that they’re able to be placed in a safe environment after hours.”

At the meeting on Monday, Ferguson said that juveniles picked up for their first two curfew violations are brought home. A third violation would result in them being brought into a curfew center “in an effort to tie that family into resources.” 

“Because apparently, if this child is out on a third time violating this ordinance on the third occasion, there must be some sort of issue within that household,” Ferguson said.

But Rachel Gassert, policy director at the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which acts as the juvenile public defender in New Orleans, said in a statement that the ordinance was expanding a curfew policy that “is already a failure because it does not reduce juvenile crime nor the possibility that children will be victims of crime.” 

The city’s curfew laws, which were passed in 1994, prohibit minors to “remain in a public place or on the premises of an establishment” after 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays during the school year, and after 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The same law also deals with truancy, making it illegal for a minor to be out between 6 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. ”on any day when the minor is required to be in school.” 

Gassert said that the laws were ripe for abuse and profiling, and could increase the potential for fatal encounters between police and citizens.

“All it does is make it easier for the police to stop young people, almost certainly young Black people, without cause,” she said. “At best, that further erodes the relationship between Black communities and the police; at worst, it could lead to yet another avoidable death of a Black person at the hands of law enforcement.

Curfew enforcement has been a controversial issue in recent years. In 2019, as part of a broader push to crack down on juvenile crime, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Ferguson announced that the city would start strictly enforcing the curfew laws. That move, at the time, was criticized by the New Orleans City Council, along with youth advocates, including LCCR and other organizations.

But at the meeting on Monday there was little discussion of the proposal, or the city’s broader curfew policy, among committee members, and only a single public comment was submitted.  

A spokesperson for LCCR said that the organization was not notified prior to the meeting that the ordinance would be heard. Gassert said there should have been more input from members of the community. 

“Today City Council barely sought out public input on the matter or even discussed the merits of the policy among themselves,” she said. “If they are serious about preventing crime, they need to involve the community in finding solutions that actually work, namely investing resources in the things kids and families need to thrive – like a living wage, affordable housing, and quality education.”

Nicholas Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...