Cities Try Curfews to Curb Crime

GRASPING for ways to deal with growing juvenile crime, cities - particularly here in the South - are increasingly trying to get teenagers off the street with curfews. At issue, say law enforcement and municipal authorities, is the question of whether a lack of parental supervision, a social problem believed to stem largely from the breakdown of the family, can be corrected by statute.

While more than a dozen cities around the South in the past six months have considered curfews for various ages, the results have been mixed. For example:

With hardly a peep of dissent, Atlanta pushed through a tough teen curfew - holding parents legally responsible - in reaction to two shooting incidents last fall in which a 4-year-old and a 13-year-old were murdered by other children.

Birmingham, Ala., briefly considered a teen curfew after the shooting death of a child. But the city responded to the problem instead by pumping an extra $1.3 million into recreation programs aimed at involving inner-city youth in constructive activity.

Meanwhile, an outpouring of citizen complaints effectively squelched a curfew proposal brought up in Richland County, S.C., after an incident in which youths opened fire on each other with machine guns. Arguments against the curfew included the possible violation of civil rights, problems with the ability of youths to hold jobs at night, and overburdening police who have more important crime to control.

``I think this is the third wave of curfews ... I don't have a lot of faith it's going to work,'' observes Patrick Murphy, director of the police policy board of the United States Conference of Mayor's. Curfews were raised in the 1950s to fight urban youth gangs, in the 1970s in response to the increase in drug sales, and now as a way to combat drug violence, he says.

In most cities where curfews have been discussed, shootings involving children have been the cause. Though in some areas, like the tiny delta town of Edwards, Miss., where the police chief began sponsoring dances in conjunction with the town's newly passed curfew, curfews have been sparked by unruly crowds of teens with nothing to do.

US Justice Department figures show juvenile crime overall is on the increase nationally. The rate of juvenile arrests for murders and nonnegligent manslaughter, for example, increased nearly 70 percent between 1985 and 1989 - from 1,311 to 2,208 killings committed by children (those 18 years old and under). The data also show a drop nationally during the 1980s in citations given for juvenile curfew violations.

Mr. Murphy says curfews often fall into disuse because enforcement is not easy. Courts often strike down the laws as violations of the constitutional right to free assembly, police often have more serious crimes to pursue, and the consequences of a curfew violation are not likely to be very tough in an already overloaded court system, he says.

Utlimately, he adds, the 15-year-old determined to commit a crime is not likely to be deterred by a curfew.

Here in Atlanta, it's hard to find much dispute over the curfew, which requires children 16 years old and under to be off the street by 11 p.m. (midnight on weekends) unless they are with their parents or traveling to and from home on a number of exempted activities such as work or school programs. The parent can receive a $1,000 fine and a 60-day jail term for a child's curfew violation.

``It may awaken parents [who may think a child] is just down the street playing Nintendo,'' says Jerome Taylor, director of the Carver/Eastside Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta. ``And psychologically, just to know he can be picked up changes things for the child.''

BUT the American Civil Liberties Union plans to challenge the curfew on First Amendment grounds, says Ellen Spears, interim director of the ACLU of Georgia. ``Just being out is a First Amendment-protected activity - the right to move freely in society is a basic right.''

This has ``absolutely nothing to do'' with constitutional rights, says Mr. Taylor, who works with more than 130 children daily in the tough Kirkwood section of Atlanta. ``Somebody's got to control these kids and the schools and parents don't.''

Interviews with community and youth-group leaders suggest a feeling - not backed by any statistical evidence - that the Atlanta curfew has gotten kids off the streets and that it has put parents on notice that they can be hauled into court if their children are caught on the street.

Police say that the cold winter months naturally keep many children off the streets and that the summer will bring the real test of the law. So far, since the ordinance went into effect in November, 88 juveniles have been picked up in violation of the ordinance and three parents have been cited. (Atlanta police policy is to issue a warning to parents on the first violation.)

Atlanta police have had mixed reactions to the ordinance. Curfew-sponsor and city councilwoman Davetta Johnson says the department was reluctant at first but helped to draft the ordinance in a way that would be ``enforceable,'' giving exemptions for many activities.

Sgt. Damian Finch explains that the ordinance is a new tool for the police because it ``gives permission'' for police to approach and question youths, which they were not able to do before without probable cause for questioning. -30-{et

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