For New Jersey teens, restrictions grow on where they can go without adults

Local leaders say they need to stop rowdy behavior

By: - September 1, 2023 3:29 pm

A sign stating current rules for the beach and boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J., is posted at beach entrances, Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. The beaches are closed at 8 p.m., no backpacks are allowed on the boardwalk after 8 p.m., and curfew for kids under the age of 18 is 11 p.m. (Lori M. Nichols for New Jersey Monitor)

From malls to Jersey Shore boardwalks to hotel pools, teens are getting pushed out of more public spaces amid complaints of rowdy and often criminal behavior.

Garden State Plaza in Paramus no longer allows anyone younger than 16 to hang out there without an adult chaperone on weekend nights. Most Jersey Shore towns have placed curfews on minors during summer months, with some enacting stricter measures this summer. Bally’s Atlantic City hotel recently barred anyone under 21 from its pool. 

Though local officials say some of the changes have led to better behavior, critics stress the restrictions may have an adverse effect on a much larger scale as teenagers find fewer places where they can socialize.

Paul Boxer is a psychology professor at Rutgers-Newark who has researched adolescent development with an emphasis on juvenile delinquency, aggressive behavior, and violence. Boxer says there are “vanishingly few” spaces where teenagers can safely gather without constant supervision. That’s a problem, he said.

“Peer group socializing for adolescents, outside of the constant monitoring by adults, is important for healthy social development. Teens need space for that to occur, such as public parks, community centers, and shopping malls,” Boxer said. 

In the case of the Shore town restrictions — put in place by local officials who said hordes of often drunken or high teens led to numerous police calls and crimes — they may not work as intended, civil liberties experts warn. 

“People historically have been subject to fines and criminal penalties for drug and alcohol use, and those consequences, historically, have not done anything to deter youth or to keep younger people safer,” said Ami Kachalia, a campaign strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “We would really encourage shifting away from punitive policies that we know are ineffective and that can cause more harm and, instead, working to create alternatives that better support young people.” 

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Unruly behavior by young people along the Shore became a topic for the Legislature earlier this year, when it considered a bill local officials said would have helped them curb underage drinking. The bill failed to advance before legislators recessed for the summer. 

At least 32 Shore towns have curfews on minors, with some only effective through the end of the summer. In Ocean City, barricades go up at 8 p.m. with police clearing people from the beach, and officers patrol beaches in Seaside Heights on dune vehicles. Wildwood moved its curfew for minors from 1 a.m. to midnight.

New Jersey, like other states, has been through this before. During the 1990s, panic about crime pushed elected officials to enforce “tough-on-juvenile” policies. And in 1993, a wave of New Jersey communities passed curfews as an attempt to “control crime.” Camden in 1996 used a siren on its city hall to alert young people that it was enforcing its curfew for the first time in four decades.

Arrests for youth crimes nationwide have plummeted from their peak of 8,476 per 100,000 people about three decades ago. Despite incidents of underage drinking, theft, and “disruption” reported during holiday weekends, the most recent data available reflects that these arrests stood at 2,044 per 100,000 in 2019, nearly a record low.

The recent changes to local laws — including bans on bringing backpacks onto boardwalks and beaches — have worked, local officials say. 

“The new beach curfew and backpack ban have largely achieved their desired effect: to eliminate the huge crowds of teens coming to the beach and boardwalk to party,” Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen told the New Jersey Monitor. 

In Wildwood, local changes will “provide the police department with stronger tools to disperse crowds” on the boardwalk and beach, city administrator Steve O’Connor told the New Jersey Monitor. 

An officer stands guard at Garden State Plaza in Paramus, which this year restricted when young people can shop without a chaperone. (Natalie Tsur for New Jersey Monitor)

The operators of Garden State Plaza also cited unruly behavior when it implemented its new chaperone policy for young teens. Paramus police records show there were 745 calls about the mall in the six months before the chaperone policy took effect. Of those, 112 were for theft, 13 for “suspicious person/group,” 13 for disorderly persons, and six for fights.

“We used to always come here in high school, just to hang out,” mall patron Annie Cummins, 23, told the New Jersey Monitor after the chaperone policy started. “I guess now, kids are going to have to find other places to do that, and I don’t know where they’re going to do that. I don’t know how this is going to really play out.” 

Police officers stand guard at most mall entrances to check patrons’ identification as they enter, and are scattered in small groups at the food court. 

Kachalia warns that “there is inherent harm with young people coming into contact with the criminal legal system,” especially youths of color. 

“When it comes to enforcement, we always worry about what could happen if an interaction goes poorly,” Kachalia said. “When it comes to Black and Latinx youth, what we worry about is, will these policies be applied equally across the board, regardless of someone’s race?” 

In a 2018 report, the ACLU of New Jersey found that in 2015, more than 1,400 youth arrests were made statewide for curfew and loitering violations, and over 60 percent of those arrested were Black. Of the 17 counties that the group studied, only 13 stationhouse adjustments were given for those violations, and 10 of those young people were white.

“These sorts of consequences are not effective in deterring youth, but they have more long-term consequences in terms of a young person’s interaction with a criminal legal system,” Kachalia said. “I think that speaks inherently to the need for more investment in other resources that can serve as trusted community places for young people.”

For Boxer, the Rutgers professor, clamping down on teens to reduce crime could have the opposite effect.

“Studies of delinquency have shown that most juvenile delinquency and other forms of problem behavior occur during the hours immediately after school lets out … So curfews won’t address that at all,” he said in an email. “The research I’ve seen on youth curfews indicates no effect or even a reverse effect — increasing crime!”

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Natalie Tsur
Natalie Tsur

Natalie Tsur is a North Jersey-based freelance reporter. After graduating from Ramapo College in 2022, she worked with the Associated Press during the 2022 general election, and has words in Montclair Local/Baristanet, and Jersey City Times.