Lawmakers Target Teen Behavior to Check Crime but Critics Say Actions, from Prom Cops to Curfews, Show Government Is Becoming a Parent

Article excerpt

Sweet 16 isn't quite so sweet anymore.

In Washington, legislators talk of adolescents as "super predators" as they debate bills on youth violence. A majority of Americans tell pollsters they don't think today's teens will make the US a better place. And around the country, local officials pass punitive laws curbing teenagers' movements and actions: Violating a teen curfew in Fillmore, Calif., for instance, can now cost a parent $2,500.

The moves represent a growing trend by government at all levels to pass laws and take other action to control the behavior of American youths on a scale unseen in decades. Much of it is driven by public concern about growing juvenile crime rates. But underlying the tough-love laws, too, is the perception in many cases that parents are failing in their child-rearing and disciplinary duties and that government needs to step in. Indeed, supporters of many of the laws say they're necessary to rein in unruly adolescents who no longer get much family guidance. And many Americans agree parents need the help: Only 1 in 5 say adults provide a good role model for their children, a recent national survey shows. Yet the crackdown is drawing protests from others who believe the laws allow too much government intrusion into family life, impinge on teen rights, and in some cases may be racist. "As Americans we're not dealing with fundamental problems," says historian LeRoy Ashby of Washington University in Pullman, Wash. "We deal with them by identifying these scapegoats and then coming up with symbolic laws that suggest we're dealing with the problem. Now we're using our children." Politicians are enacting real laws - preemptive and punitive - at all levels. In Texas, the House is considering criminal penalties for minors who smoke, and schools invite police to oversee teens at the prom. Georgia followed other states' lead on July 1, making a driver's license harder to obtain, and Sacramento, Calif., teens on learner's permits can no longer give friends under 20 a lift unless an adult is in the car. Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida has proposed jailing 13-year-old offenders with adult convicts. And cities across the country are introducing curfew laws. "Americans are frightened for - and in some cases of - our children," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of the New York-based research firm Public Agenda. It has happened before. At the turn of this century, economic progress meant fewer children had to work, and political reformers began to worry about children channeling their energies in productive ways. They produced a bumper crop of restrictive laws, redefining delinquency to include a range of activities normal for children at the time: smoking, rolling dice, and staying out late. Censorship laws were passed to limit exposure to movies and dancing, much like the current proposals over TV content and the V-chip, says Professor Ashby. …