By John C. Lore III
Child curfew laws have garnered great support throughout our region and the United States, becoming law in 75 percent of major American cities, including Philadelphia, Camden, Media and Paulsboro. Politicians and community action groups alike assume that curfews - which generally forbid children from being out of their homes between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. - are a partial answer to both the problems of juvenile crime and the victimization of juveniles. They do not achieve the desired effects, and thus waste our region's critical resources.
Curfew laws incorrectly assume that children and the community are better protected when children are in the home. Much of the rationale behind juvenile curfew laws automatically assumes that children's homes are safe and pleasant environments with nurturing and healthy parents.
The ineffectiveness of juvenile curfew laws is evidenced by many recent studies that suggest these laws result in little or no lasting decrease in crime or victimization of juveniles. Experts have concluded that these laws are created to give the illusion that something is being done to protect young people, but in reality they lead to police spending their time corralling teens instead of investigating and arresting dangerous criminals.
Children who violate curfew laws frequently come from troubled homes with domestic violence, physical, mental or sexual abuse, and drug or alcohol problems. These domestic situations often create potentially explosive situations that can lead to an increase in serious crime within the home. These children are more likely to be victimized by crime when forced to remain in an unstable home.
Juvenile curfew laws target a time of the day when little juvenile crime is occurring. Because the overwhelming majority of juvenile crime and victimization occurs during the late afternoon, not during the overnight hours, resources would be better spent on after-school programs and initiatives. The strategic use of limited resources during late afternoons would be a more effective way to help children and enhance community safety.
In addition to their overall ineffectiveness, curfew laws have a disparate impact on minorities and poor families. Wealthy children tend to live in larger homes with spacious family rooms, their own bedrooms, and numerous activities and diversions, such as cable televisions, stereo systems, video games, and computers with Internet access. Middle-class and affluent children may have little need or desire to stay away from their homes because, even in those families where parents are fighting or a parent has a drinking problem, there is usually enough room in the home for each individual to enjoy some privacy and remove themselves from any volatile situation by simply moving to a different area of the house.
As law enforcement and court resources continue to be limited, it has become clear that resources should be redirected in a way that better serves children and protects the community. Additionally, this redirection of resources would allow police officers to concentrate on investigating and bringing violent criminals into custody - instead of herding any available unfettered children into detention centers, police stations or even courts. The portion of the municipal budget which is spent on juvenile curfews could be more profitably spent on community centers, after-school programs, and policing and prosecuting more serious crimes.
Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy answers to the problem of crime. Child curfew laws that interject antagonism between the teenage population and law enforcement personnel do not seem to be an answer. They damage the impressionable self-images of young people, who then begin to identify themselves as criminals.
In light of the facts, the local juvenile curfew policy needs to be reexamined to ensure that we are best utilizing our limited resources and doing our best to protect children and the community.