Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

The New Orleans City Council has placed an ordinance that would expand the city’s curfew and truancy laws to apply to 17-year-olds on its consent agenda —  reserved for “routine or non-controversial matters” that are passed as a group rather than debated individually — at the upcoming Council meeting this Thursday.

That decision has frustrated youth advocates who oppose the measure. A coalition of over two dozen organizations, including the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Step Up Louisiana, and Daughters Beyond Incarceration, put out a statement calling it “unacceptable that the City Council is attempting to expand the curfew without any input from community members, advocates, or the young people it will affect.”

“Any policy that comes at such a high risk of discrimination, and such a low chance of success, should be carefully considered by both elected officials and the public,” the coalition, called Youth Justice Advocates, wrote. “We urge the Council to take the ordinance off the consent agenda and allow the people to register their questions and concerns.”

On Tuesday, the coalition emailed all the Council members urging them to to remove the ordinance from the consent agenda and placed on the regular agenda “so it can receive full and individualized consideration by the Council.” While the council votes to adopt the entire consent agenda — which normally includes at least a dozen items — at once, ordinances in the regular agenda are each subject to an individual debate and vote. 

But on Wednesday, Councilmember Jay Banks, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen, said that the ordinance would remain on the consent agenda. He said that public comment would still be heard when the council takes a vote to adopt all of its 18  items on Thursday.

“Whether this is on the consent agenda or regular agenda, there will always be an opportunity to comment,” Banks said. “The public will have every chance to be heard and have their comments read onto the record.” 

Nguyen told The Lens that the ordinance shouldn’t be considered controversial because it “basically aligns city law to state law with defining young people.” 

“That’s it,” she said. “That’s all it does.” 

The state law that Nguyen referred to, known as “Raise the Age,” passed in 2016 and went into full effect last year. It mandated that 17-year-olds generally be treated as juveniles in the criminal justice system. It did not address curfews, however, and was supported by many of the same organizations that are now opposing the expansion of curfew ordinance.

According to council rules, any member may ask that the ordinance be moved from the consent agenda to the regular agenda. That request would then be announced by the Clerk of Council at the meeting, and “absent objection from another Councilmember, the item shall be placed on the regular agenda for full Council consideration without the need for a vote on the move to the regular agenda.”

Rachel Gassert, policy director with LCCR, said that the ordinance should get an individual vote so community members “know where they stand.” 

“I wonder whether the Black 17-year-old who is stopped by an armed police officer for simply walking in his neighborhood at 10 p.m. would think this measure is non-controversial,” she said.

Reverend Gregory Manning, who is a member of the organization Justice and Beyond — also part of the coalition —  said he talked to Banks because he was concerned public comment wouldn’t be heard on the ordinance. Banks assured him that was not the case.

But Manning said he still felt the ordinance should get a full hearing at the meeting.

“My opinion is that it needs to be taken off the consent agenda,” Manning said. “Those who are stakeholders in the community and willing to be participatory in finding an alternative … need to be included in the conversation more.” 

The curfew ordinance was given unanimous approval by the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee last week, and according to council rules, among the items that may be placed on the consent agenda are “ordinances or motions that have received the unanimous approval of the appropriate committee.”

But that doesn’t always occur. In a relatively recent example, the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved restrictions on police use of tear gas last year. When it came time for final passage, the ordinance was given an individual hearing, and several amendments were adopted.

And following committee approval of the curfew ordinance last week, LCCR, which serves as the city’s juvenile public defender, took issue with the fact that they had not been notified by the council that the ordinance was being heard at all. 

Gassert said after the meeting that the “council barely sought out public input on the matter or even discussed the merits of the policy among themselves.” She added that if council members “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.”

Since then, the coalition has been organizing opposition to the measure, setting up a form for people to email their councilmembers telling them to vote no on the ordinance, and that the curfew law in general “has failed to prevent crime or protect children from being victims of crime” and that “all a curfew does is make it easier for the police to stop and harass young Black people.”

Currently, the city’s curfew laws only apply to individuals under the age of 17. The ordinance that is likely to be passed tomorrow would raise that age to anyone under 18. The laws prohibit minors from being in public places 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. 

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said at the committee meeting last week that the ordinance would both be useful in cutting down on juvenile crime, in addition to making city law track with the Raise the Age law. 

Advocates argue that the curfew laws as a whole are ineffective and can lead to discriminatory policing, unnecessary criminalisation of young people, and a breakdown in trust between communities and law enforcement.

Reverend Manning said at the end of the day the city needs to “invest in young people, and figure out how to engage and call upon stakeholders who are willing to do that,” rather than expanding the curfew law, which is “ultimately going to cause and strengthen the mindset that our youth should be feared instead of invested in.”

Nick 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...