A Case for Curfews

IN more than 200 American cities and towns, the old public-service announcement, ``It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?'' has been updated for the '90s. The hour in question is now more likely to be later, and the correct response as to children's whereabouts is: ``They're home, obeying a curfew.''

From Miami to Detroit and from Newark, N.J., to Los Angeles, what a Texas appeals court calls ``nocturnal juvenile curfew ordinances'' prohibit young people from being in public places late at night. Supporters claim that the measures protect children and teenagers from crime. Opponents argue that the restrictions punish all youths and ``convict the innocent.'' Some defiant teenagers insist that they will not be deterred by such laws. Indeed, some cities have already found curfews to be unenforceable.

This week the United States Supreme Court let stand, without comment, a ruling in Dallas that prohibits young people under the age of 17 from being in public places between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weeknights and between midnight and 6 a.m. on weekends. It allows exceptions for a range of approved activities, including being accompanied by parents or guardians.

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Curfews also rank as an issue these days in California. The California Coastal Commission, for the first time in its 22-year history, has sanctioned a five-hour curfew in Coronado, Calif. It states that towns have the right to ban people - adults as well as teens - from beaches between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Proponents view the measure as an attempt to fight crime. Those opposed charge that it is merely a tool for keeping less affluent city dwellers away.

Curfews alone obviously are not going to halt crime. Even as a single solution, the curfew has to rank well behind gun control. Further, the freedom for citizens to move about freely at any time of day must be treated with the utmost caution and respect.

Still, despite a certain dangerous imprecision, the curfew movement sends a signal that another right must be respected equally - the right of law-abiding citizens, including teenagers themselves, to enjoy a climate of security and peace in their community.

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