Lawmakers Target Teen Behavior to Check Crime

But critics say actions, from prom cops to curfews, show government is becoming a parent

Sweet 16 isn't quite so sweet anymore.

In Washington, legislators talk of adolescents as "super predators" as they debate bills on youth violence. A majority of Americans tell pollsters they don't think today's teens will make the US a better place. And around the country, local officials pass punitive laws curbing teenagers' movements and actions: Violating a teen curfew in Fillmore, Calif., for instance, can now cost a parent $2,500.

The moves represent a growing trend by government at all levels to pass laws and take other action to control the behavior of American youths on a scale unseen in decades.

Much of it is driven by public concern about growing juvenile crime rates. But underlying the tough-love laws, too, is the perception in many cases that parents are failing in their child-rearing and disciplinary duties and that government needs to step in.

Indeed, supporters of many of the laws say they're necessary to rein in unruly adolescents who no longer get much family guidance. And many Americans agree parents need the help: Only 1 in 5 say adults provide a good role model for their children, a recent national survey shows.

Yet the crackdown is drawing protests from others who believe the laws allow too much government intrusion into family life, impinge on teen rights, and in some cases may be racist.

"As Americans we're not dealing with fundamental problems," says historian LeRoy Ashby of Washington University in Pullman, Wash. "We deal with them by identifying these scapegoats and then coming up with symbolic laws that suggest we're dealing with the problem. Now we're using our children."

Politicians are enacting real laws - preemptive and punitive - at all levels. In Texas, the House is considering criminal penalties for minors who smoke, and schools invite police to oversee teens at the prom. Georgia followed other states' lead on July 1, making a driver's license harder to obtain, and Sacramento, Calif., teens on learner's permits can no longer give friends under 20 a lift unless an adult is in the car.

Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida has proposed jailing 13-year-old offenders with adult convicts. And cities across the country are introducing curfew laws.

"Americans are frightened for - and in some cases of - our children," says Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of the New York-based research firm Public Agenda.

It has happened before. At the turn of this century, economic progress meant fewer children had to work, and political reformers began to worry about children channeling their energies in productive ways.

They produced a bumper crop of restrictive laws, redefining delinquency to include a range of activities normal for children at the time: smoking, rolling dice, and staying out late. Censorship laws were passed to limit exposure to movies and dancing, much like the current proposals over TV content and the V-chip, says Professor Ashby.

"Then, as now, reformers backing the laws saw it as a matter of protecting society from bad children," says Ashby. "In both instances they were dealing with symptoms rather than causes. Ironically enough, [by redefining unacceptable behavior] they enlarged the problem."

Teens today resent much of the legislative attention. "It's age discrimination," says Bonnie Calhoon, a junior at Isadore Newman High School in New Orleans, where first-time violators of a 10 p.m. curfew face a $500 fine. "Being arrested and detained at a certain time of day because of your age is wrong. Just because I'm 16 and out past 10 doesn't mean I'm committing a crime."

But Bonnie recognizes how the curfew can serve parents. "It's easier for a parent to say you have to be home by 11 because it's the law, instead of 'because I want you to,' " she allows.

She touches on a point Public Agenda discovered in a recent national poll on attitudes toward children: Most Americans think the problem with teenagers today starts with their families.

Half those surveyed complained that parents failed to discipline their kids, and more than half said it's common for people to have children before they are ready to take responsibility for them. Many acknowledged that parenting has become a tougher job, especially for the growing numbers of time-strapped single parents and two-career families.

LEGISLATORS cite this concern when explaining new teen-oriented criminal laws. "The decline of the American family portends big trouble," Paul McNulty, an adviser to Representative McCollum, writes in an article titled "Natural Born Killers." "When families fail to instill virtue in children, government must be prepared ... to send a clear message to those children." That message: tougher punishments for young offenders.

Law enforcers echo Mr. McNulty when explaining more-benign civic laws. Dallas needs its teen curfew because of "a lack of parental supervision," says Sgt. Jim Chandler.

Dallas cops on the curfew beat wrote almost 1,000 tickets and issued 548 warnings in the first four months of this year. The kids caught in the nightly dragnet are generally from lower-income areas, Sergeant Chandler says. "It's not necessarily a race thing," he says. "It's more a class thing."

But some experts say it is a "race thing" - that moves to introduce tougher juvenile criminal laws unfairly target inner-city kids, most of whom are minorities. "The scary images they're using of the adolescent 'super predator' getting out of the inner city and terrorizing more-upscale populations - they're talking about race," says Michael Males, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. "We've just switched everything we used to say about race - 'they're violent, they're lazy, they're oversexed,' to adolescents. The hot-blooded minority male is now the adolescent super-predator."

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