Towns Turns Teens into Pumpkins

By Gahr, Evan | Insight on the News, February 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Towns Turns Teens into Pumpkins


Gahr, Evan, Insight on the News


Cities around the country are resurrecting curfew laws. Not everyone think it's a good idea.

In New Orleans, teenagers must be off the streets by 8 p.m. on school nights. In Pittsburgh, kids stopped for violating curfew are brought to a special holding facility. In Chicago, parents can have their cars impounded if their sons and daughters are caught driving them during curfew hours.

In a concerted effort to fight crime and foster parental responsibility, municipalities across the country have implemented curfews, forbidding adolescents to roam the streets at night and, in some cases, during the day. But even though curfews enjoy considerable bipartisan support and the staunch backing of President Clinton, civil libertarians contend they are unconstitutional, accord police too much discretionary power and turn law-abiding citizens into criminals.

"It's hardly a free country if everybody under 17 or 18 is effectively put under house arms every night," Arthur Spitzer, a legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Insight. "Criminal law should be for people who commit crimes, not people who want to walk the dog. The fact that 5 percent of teenagers commit crimes is not a good reason for imposing a curfew on the 95 percent who don't."

Nevertheless, curfew supporters are pushing ahead even as they concede there is no hard evidence that the laws reduce crime. The debate, however, is based less on data than on impressions -- in particular, a sense of social decay represented by rowdy teenagers, single-parent homes and a breakdown of traditional mores that once rendered such laws superfluous. Indeed, proponents contend that curfews wouldn't be necessary if parents did their job.

"I'm not a strong believer that government can substitute for family," says Pittsburgh Councilman Dan Onorato, who sponsored his city's measure. "But parents have abdicated their role. We can reach out or put our heads in the sand."

According to University of South Carolina criminologist William Ruefle, curfews have been on the books for decades but faded out in the 1950s. Many communities returned to curfews in the early 1990s in the wake of rising teenage crime. Today, approximately 1,000 jurisdictions have some type of curfew, including three-quarters of the nation's 200 largest cities (with populations greater than 100,000). One hundred such cities have enacted curfews during the last five years.

Most require that teenagers -- unless they are engaged in First Amendment-protected activities -- be off the street by 11 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends. In the case of first offenses, teenagers are held at the precinct until parents pick them up. …

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