The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Curfews don’t work. Midnight Basketball did.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush during his visit to the Glenarden Community Center in Glenarden, Md., in 1991. Bush visited the center to honor the Midnight Basketball League for its efforts in luring young adults off the street and into a productive environment. (Barry Thumma/AP)

The last time there was a head-shaking crime surge in Prince George’s County, a star was born.

And it’s a complete turnaround from how local leaders are addressing this summer’s perplexing crime surge.

As carjackings, shootings and teen drug dealers dominated the headlines during the height of our nation’s crack epidemic in the 1980s, G. Van Standifer noticed a pattern when he fanned out all his town’s crime reports in front of him: the worst of the crimes happened between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. and most of the victims and the perps were between 17 and 22.

“He always knew how important it was for us to be out there playing, safely,” his son, Nelson Standifer, told me years ago, when we met at his childhood home in Glenarden, where his dad, the town manager, realized that the kids getting in trouble weren’t living in a place as safe as his street.

So he found a way to build one — founding the Midnight Basketball League in a gym. The brilliance of his simple plan sparkled and spread across the nation.

“Here everybody wins,” President George H.W. Bush said in 1991, when he visited a Midnight Basketball game in Glenarden, after naming the program one of his “1,000 Points of Light.” “It’s about providing opportunity for young adults to escape drugs and the streets and get on with their lives.” (Look at that, he almost sounded like a Democrat).

Crime rates fell in Prince George’s County over the next few years and Midnight Basketball spread across the nation, in troubled cities with high crime rates and in small towns with high boredom rates.

The league still runs in places all over America, but not in the county of its birth. The local league simply ran out of money — donations dried up when crime went down.

“I’ve left messages at the county executive’s office and haven’t heard back,” said Nelson Sandifer, who is trying to bring the league back to his hometown. “Midnight Basketball isn’t the answer. But it’s an alternative. A good alternative.”

Today, that 1990s crime is back. While overall crime rates remain low, August was the single deadliest month the county has seen in decades.

Crime rate climbs in Prince George's County after deadly weekend

“I cannot stand by and continue to watch children who are shot and killed, who are not only committing crimes but harming others, and do nothing about it,” said Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks. (She almost sounded like a law-and-order Republican).

She ranted at the court system: “It’s clear the problem is what happens after the arrests, or in our case, what doesn’t happen.”

So Aisha Braveboy, the state’s attorney in Prince George’s, snapped back, calling Alsobrooks’s words “pure politics.”

And down came the hammer as Alsobrooks announced the enforcement of a long-standing curfew that most of the county had been ignoring for decades.

The people who deal directly with juvenile offenders shot back at Alsobrooks.

“Curfews do not make anyone safer or address any underlying societal problems which are the true root of crime. At best, curfews are an ineffective Band-Aid; at worst, they criminalize our most vulnerable and at-risk children,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue and Melissa Pryce, the district public defender for Prince George’s, said in a Wednesday news release.

While Alsobrooks has advocated publicly for increased opportunities and more mental health support for youth to address the violence, at the news conference she laid the problems at their feet: “At this point, these kids don’t just need a hug, they need to be held accountable.”

But curfews don’t always equal accountability, according to an exhaustive study in 2018 by the Marshall Project.

A study by the Justice Policy Center on Prince George’s County in particular came up with few conclusions other than the fact that police simply didn’t have the bandwidth to chase and process curfew violations every night.

For one, it means that police have a reason to stop anyone young-looking at night.

“It just gives them another way to come at us,” said a 17-year-old from Prince George’s named Castro, who wouldn’t get in trouble for violating the curfew, which targets kids 16 and under. He worries it may give police more opportunities for confrontations.

That’s what Jarriel Jordan worries about, too— the setup for more ways that things can go wrong between police and kids. It’s not something police love doing. Jordan, a former police officer, agrees with Alsobrooks’ tough approach, he knows “everyone needs to be held accountable." His emphasis, however, is to include positive opportunities because, “ at the same time, this is supposed to be about rehabilitation.”

His nonprofit, Jacob’s Ladder, works with kids when they get out of lockup. That’s when they’re shaken, traumatized, and in a moment when they could be most vulnerable to positive influences.

It’s exactly where Castro is. He told me his last name but I’m not going to use it because he has a future planned out, one that doesn’t involve more time behind bars.

He was locked up on a gun charge for three weeks, then spent seven months with an ankle monitor. Now, he wants to find some kind of apprenticeship or job or something that gets him closer to his goal while he finishes his senior year of high school.

“But there’s nothing near me,” he said. “I don’t have a way to get around. I just want something to do.” He’s trying to find positive ways to deal with his emotions, his anger, his energy. He’s taking part in Jacob’s Ladder programs and said he was surprised by what helped him.

“They taught me how to calm myself and work on my breathing,” he said. “It was, um, yoga.”

Yes, yoga.

Or Midnight Basketball. Whatever it takes.

This column has been updated with additional context from Jarriel Jordan.

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