Atlanta's Curfew Experiment

ATLANTA'S 11 p.m. curfew for teenagers 17 and under - designed to nip the city's growing youth violence in the bud - leaves us with mixed feelings. Forcing young people inside is hardly a preferred solution. Curfews are typically the social control mechanisms of police states and military dictatorships. The effect on young minds may be either submission to or hostility toward authority - neither of which is desirable. The perception of government acting as ``Big Brother'' tends to undercut the idea of legitimate, fair government. A 17-year-old who must be home by 11, but who when turning 18 can be sent to fight in the Persian Gulf is at least ironic.

The Atlanta City Council, however, hopes the curfew, engineered by a black councilwoman, will be an effective example of ``tough love.'' Looking to the growing homicide rates among youth in cities like Washington and New York, Atlanta is saying, ``Not here.'' At a time when public officials are criticized for not doing enough to protect children and adolescents, this is one solution. It may be useful as an experiment.

Still, a curfew is unlikely to be anything but a short-term approach that may get kids and parents thinking. It's a simplistic ``just say no'' solution to a more complex problem.

The penalty for breaking the curfew, which falls on parents, is questionable. What happens when the children of a single mother on welfare get caught often enough? The woman can't pay the $1,000 fine. So she must go to jail for 60 days. What message does ``Mom in jail'' send her children? Obviously, penalties will have to be handled with much judgment and wisdom on the part of police, judges, and officials.

Perhaps the Atlanta curfew is useful mainly as a portent or warning. It's an example of what happens when there aren't enough ``mediating structures'' in a city or community - strong families, churches, neighborhoods, civic groups, schools, and so on - to intervene meaningfully.

Perhaps, too, the outcry in Atlanta over the controversial curfew may reinvigorate such structures. And bring out new ones.

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