To some they are an effective tool for reducing youth crime. To others they amount to no more than thinly veiled martial law. Either way, teen curfews have been on the rise in communities all across the US for most of the 1990s and are now in force in roughly 150 of America's 200 largest cities.
But while they have become one of the most popular methods for battling juvenile crime during the past decade, curfews are increasingly coming under attack in court.
The restrictions have been put on their heels, now that a lawsuit is pending against a curfew in Monrovia, Calif., that had been lauded by President Clinton as a national model. Moreover, an appeals court in Washington ruled last month that curfews are unconstitutional. And now, the most comprehensive study of curfews to date indicates that the laws may not be as effective as previously thought.
"We feel the study fills a much-needed gap in this crucial area of public policy, where legislators are rushing to make appropriate laws," says Patrick Jackson, editor of Western Criminology Review, the journal that published the report June 10.
Released by the Justice Policy Institute, the study analyzes 32 years' worth of crime statistics across California. Among its conclusions:
* For the entire state of California, there was no category of crime (misdemeanors, violent crime, property crime, etc.) that significantly declined in association with youth curfews.
* Overall, counties with strict youth curfews saw no decrease in youth crime relative to counties without the curfews.
* In places with curfews, authorities arrested Latino and African-American youths at rates several times higher than those for white youths. For white and Asian youths, arrest rates (particularly for misdemeanors) went up after curfews were introduced.
"The evidence suggests new direction is needed that should be more prevention-oriented," says Dan Macallair, co-author of the study. He recommends alternatives such as full-service schools - schools that remain open until late in the evening as mini-community centers. He says these schools have been successful in New York and San Francisco and adds, "If we are going to spend limited tax dollars, we might better spend them on ways that are shown to have promise."
YET the study's results are already being questioned by critics who say the statistics were interpreted from biased or erroneous premises.
"The past 10 years of California crime statistics show clearly that the more juveniles who were stopped for truancy offenses, the fewer felony arrests were made," says Matt Ross, spokesman for state Attorney General Dan Lungren. "We see a very positive correlation between truancy laws and lower crime."
In Monrovia, Police Chief Joe Santoro says statistics are being manipulated in a campaign to turn public opinion against curfews that work.
"If we put more police on the streets to enforce curfews, we will by nature be stopping more youths and catching them at more acts because we are focusing on that," says Chief Santoro. "To then take those increased arrest statistics to say there is now an increase in crime because of curfews is ludicrous."
He notes that residential burglaries, vehicle burglaries, disturbances, and grand theft auto are all down more than 30 percent since 1994.