ON the evening of Jan. 1, Miami youths under age 17 were prevented by law from doing what many had done the night before: staying out past 11 p.m.
Miami, and surrounding Dade County, Fla., has a new youth curfew. This region is not alone. In record numbers, jurisdictions around the country - from major metropolises to small towns - are keeping their kids in at night under force of law.
"You can definitely say there are thousands of curfews nationwide, more than ever," says William Ruefle, a criminologist at the University of South Alabama. "In the 1990s, it's become a movement."
But behind the trend lies an enduring question: Do curfews work? Critics say they're an easy, seemingly cheap way for politicians to appear to be doing something about crime. Civil libertarians argue that they violate the constitutional rights of young people. Supporters counter with crime data, which they say suggest curfews can have a positive impact.
Of America's 200 largest cities, about 150 now have curfews; more than 50 of them are new since 1990. Some cities, such as Cleveland, have daytime curfews, which allow police to enforce truancy laws. Even towns with a few thousand residents are trying curfews, if not to halt a youth crime wave, then to make sure one doesn't start.
While overall crime rates have been declining, juvenile crime is on the rise: Arrests of youths under age 18 for violent crimes are up 7 percent from the year before, the FBI reported in November. Public officials have responded with curfews, both to keep young people from committing crimes and to protect them from becoming victims. Some officials also say curfews aim to help - or make - parents keep track of their kids.
The District of Columbia has had a youth curfew since last July and has already put out statistics that appear to show a dramatic impact. From July 16, 1995, when the curfew went into effect, through Oct. 11, 1995, D.C.'s juvenile arrest rate declined by 34 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, D.C. police chief Larry Soulsby reports.
"I don't know that we're saying definitely the decline is because of the curfew, but I think you can infer that it has something to do with the curfew regulations," says Lt. Melvin Scott, an officer in D.C.'s delinquency-prevention program.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) national capital area chapter, preaches caution on statistics. "Arrest rates are not synonymous with crime rates," says Mr. Spitzer, whose ACLU branch is suing D.C. over the curfew. "There are many factors that go into an arrest rate. Maybe it's down because there's no overtime budget for police."
San Diego is another city showing a decline in violent crime and a reduction in numbers of juvenile victims since it began serious enforcement of its longstanding curfew at the end of 1993.
But at least one San Diego teenager isn't impressed. When David Pressman was a senior last year at Torrey Pines High, he worried every day about breaking the law. If he went out to the theater, for example, he'd be coming home late - after the 10 p.m. curfew for youths under 18.
Mr. Pressman made it to his 18th birthday without ever being stopped by police, but he's still party to a lawsuit filed by the San Diego ACLU challenging the curfew. "This law isn't keeping gang-bangers off the streets," says Pressman, now a freshman at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "It's just making life difficult for law-abiding people."
The ACLU argues that curfews should be the domain of parents, not police officers or politicians. The group also argues that curfews violate the rights of young people, such as the freedom of speech and the right to assemble. Last month, a judge ruled against the San Diego ACLU, which has filed an appeal.
In court cases around the country, the ACLU has lost some battles and won others. No curfew case has ever been accepted by the Supreme Court - though activists on both sides of the debate say the time has come for the high court to rule definitively on the constitutionality of curfews.
Meanwhile, more cities are coming up with their own variations on the curfew theme. In Charleston, S.C., the police department asks parents to voluntarily sign permission forms allowing police to detain their children if they're out after midnight.
In D.C., the curfew carries a possible fine for offenders, plus a requirement that first-time offenders and their parents attend a counseling session on the purpose of the law. Dade County's new curfew also carries a provision to fine parents, in this case after a child's third offense. Dade is also involving local churches in the curfew program. They will create safe centers for curfew violators, do paper work, and call parents.
The aim, says county commissioner James Burke, is to identify problem situations before they end in tragedy. "I'd rather find out about a kid when he's 13 and loitering than when he's 16 and committing serious crimes or killed in a drive-by," says Mr. Burke.
Though many criminologists criticize curfews as feel-good panaceas, some argue that they can be effective when used as part of a complete effort to address the problems of youths.
"Used in an effective and creative way, the curfew can be a valuable tool," says Patrick Murphy, ex-commissioner of police for New York City. "Among supportive parents, it can be a good thing. But where you have the highest crime and the most sociological problems, you'll tend to get the least cooperative parents. So it's not a magic bullet."