Curfews Are Popular, But Results Mixed
Curfew laws for teenagers are widely used, enjoy enormous popularity and apparently have sharply reduced juvenile crime in certain cities, such as Dallas and New Orleans.
But despite those successes, surveys of the nation’s big cities have found that most curfew laws are not strictly enforced and that their impact in most cities has been modest at best. And some officials questioned the wisdom of having police officers spending time picking up otherwise law-abiding 16-year-olds and transporting them to station houses.
Nonetheless, requiring teens by law to be off the streets got a big boost this week from President Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
In New Orleans, the president said curfew laws “are just like the old-fashioned rules most of us had when we were kids. When the lights come on, be home.”
The difference, of course, is that the police, not parents, are now called upon to enforce those rules.
Nearly three-fourths of cities of more than 100,000 population have curfew laws on their books. In Orange County, all 31 cities have curfew ordinances of some sort, most banning youngsters younger than 17 from roaming outdoors between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some exceptions are made for areas around organized sporting events, movie theaters and amusement parks.
Former Assemblyman Tom Umberg of Garden Grove sponsored a state law in 1994 that increased curfew fines and provided cities with new funds to enforce their curfews. The law created fines of up to $250 for the parents of children caught in violation.
The success of local curfews and burgeoning juvenile crime have been cited by a coalition of police and school officials who plan to unveil next week a proposed county ordinance targeting truancy.
The proposal would allow police officers to slap youngsters not in school with a $50 fine on the spot, sidestepping a lengthy and seldom-used fining process already on the books. The proposal, which is being drafted by the Orange County Chiefs’ and Sheriff’s Assn., also would allow officers to ferry truants directly to their campuses in lieu of a fine.
Nationally, most curfew laws require that youths 17 and younger be off the streets by 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Some impose a $25 fine on parents whose children are picked up more than once.
Some cities are going further.
In Birmingham, Ala., officials said they are picking up youths under 16 for truancy who are on the street between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. In Chicago, the City Council is considering a proposal to confiscate automobiles if teenagers are found driving them after hours.
That “will get the attention of parents if they have to pay to get back” the family car, said Alderman Edward Burke, who proposed the idea.
In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors surveyed 387 cities and found that just over one-third characterized curfew laws as “very effective.” Many conceded that they did not have the personnel to enforce the measures.
“This is the hot topic now, so a lot of police departments are hauling kids in to prove they are doing the job,” said John Pionke, who compiled the survey. “But the history of these laws is [that] police are soon pushed in another direction and they back off enforcing the curfews.”
Pionke said curfews appear to be more effective in smaller cities, such as Charleston, S.C., and Birmingham.
“In New York and Los Angeles, because of their size, it’s very hard to enforce it,” he said.
Dozens of cities in Southern California have curfew laws, but enforcement is mixed.
In Los Angeles, the curfew makes it illegal for minors to loiter after 10 p.m. In the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollenbeck Division, one of the city’s busiest, officers say minors who are found in violation of the curfew are brought to a station house, where volunteers call a parent or guardian to pick them up.
In 1993, San Diego began vigorously enforcing one of the toughest curfew laws in the nation, a law that had been on the books since 1947 but was rarely enforced. A federal judge in December rejected a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the curfew was heavy-handed and would prohibit youths from attending midnight Mass or a late political rally.
The San Diego curfew allows those under 18 to be out after 10 p.m. only if they are working, attending a school activity, being supervised by a parent or going home.
In Inglewood, a 10 p.m. weeknight curfew has long been on the books, but “it fell into disuse,” said Capt. Jim Seymour. “It’s cumbersome to bring in a minor for an . . . offense that is not a criminal offense.”
In Dallas, officials said a 2-year-old curfew law has been an extraordinary success, and it sent out a clear message that teenagers are not to be out after 11 p.m. Not only have parents and their children gotten the message, but so have club and restaurant owners.
“Before the curfew, as long as the clubs and arcades were open, the kids were there. This way, that opportunity for mischief goes away,” said Dallas Police Lt. Jeff Cotner.
The enforcement is largely handled by the teenagers themselves. “Those kids know what time it is,” Cotner said. “They’ll push it right up to the wire, but then they leave and they’re gone.” However, repeat violators can be fined up to $500.
In two years, violent crimes committed by juveniles have gone down by 30%, Dallas police said, and overall juvenile crime is down by 20%.
New Orleans’ officials reported similar success. In the first year of their teen curfew, youth crime dropped by 27%, and auto thefts went down by 42%. Police in the Crescent City said they enforce the curfew from dusk to dawn.
The New Orleans curfew comes early--8 p.m. on school nights--but officials make sure that teenagers know about it. One Pizza Hut owner donated 1,500 watches to Mayor Marc Morial to pass out to youths.
But most other cities have seen at best only small declines in youth crime after adopting a curfew. Phoenix police said youth crime may have gone down 10% because of the curfew, and Dade County, Fla., officials reported a 4% drop after enforcing the new law.
That may be so because juvenile crime actually peaks from 3 to 8 p.m., not late at night, said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.
Lawyers for the ACLU continue to fight the curfews as unconstitutional, arguing that they punish law-abiding teenagers more than criminals.
“We don’t think the government can make it a crime to sit on the curb and talk to your friends or to walk your dog at night,” said Art Spitzer, an ACLU lawyer who is challenging the curfew in the District of Columbia. “We could probably reduce the number of rapes if we made it illegal for women to go out by themselves to jog but that’s not the way we make laws in this country,” he said.
Times researchers Anna M. Virtue in Miami, Edith Stanley in Atlanta, Lianne Hart in Houston and John Beckham in Chicago, and Times staff writers Geoff Boucher in Orange County, Jeff Leeds in Los Angeles and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this story.