Curfews: a Useful Tool

Curfews to get children and teenagers off the streets at night are in effect in 146 of the country's 200 largest cities. President Clinton supports them. So does Bob Dole. Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida is expected to introduce a bill that would provide $250 million a year in federal "incentive" grants to states and cities that impose curfews (as well as other get-tough laws).

But are curfews valid, or do they violate children's rights? Can a law correct a lack of parental supervision?

Clearly, curfews alone can't solve the problem of juvenile crime. They can't, for example, resolve the underlying problems of restoring family discipline or providing young people with better schools and job opportunities. Some cities have found curfews to be unenforceable - overburdening police who have more serious crime to control. And the fact that most juvenile crimes occur between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. indicates that stepped-up after-school youth programs might be a more effective solution.

Yet curfews are more than quick-fix political ploys. According to the Justice Department, New Orleans saw a 27 percent drop in juvenile crime during curfew hours in 1994 compared with '93. Programs in Dallas and Phoenix also have been successful.

The president, who visited New Orleans recently to endorse that city's ordinance, recognizes that to work properly, curfew programs must be narrowly tailored and must fulfill certain criteria, such as providing centers with trained staff to which young violators can be taken. There should also be exceptions, including exempting young people involved in supervised school, church, or recreational events; those accompanied by an adult; or those traveling to or from work.

Curfew ordinances are surely not the only answer to juvenile crime. Multiple strategies are necessary.

But curfews do provide parents and local authorities a tool to ensure that young people are off the streets and safe. They send a further message that all law-abiding citizens have the right to a secure and peaceful environment.

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