WASHINGTON — As increasing numbers of American cities step up enforcement of youth curfews, more than 90% of cities surveyed find the controversial laws a useful tool for police officers, with several California cities reporting dramatic decreases in juvenile crime, according to a national report released Monday.
And all 72 surveyed cities that have daytime curfews--also known as anti-truancy laws--report more children in school and fewer under arrest. Overall, 53% of surveyed cities that have imposed curfews in the last decade credit the laws for recent drops in juvenile crime.
In Hayward, east of San Francisco, officials say their night and day curfews have cut youth crime in half. San Jose has seen a 23% drop in the number of children who are victims of crime, while Inglewood reports a 40% reduction in juvenile offenders since 1994, when it imposed curfews of 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends.
"It's a parent-support tool. Ultimately, that's its real value," said Steven H. Staveley of La Habra, head of the police chiefs association in Orange County, where all 31 cities have nighttime curfews.
"Not every kid who violates curfew or daytime truancy ordinances ends up being a crook," he added. "But . . . if they get zinged for it early on, we have less likelihood they're going to feel they're getting away with something and ultimately get into more egregious and more violent behavior."
A separate study by the Los Angeles Police Department credited the city's 1995 anti-truancy law with a 20% to 45% drop in daytime burglaries, shoplifting and car break-ins. A night curfew has been enforced only sporadically.
"There were a number of drive-by shootings, kids were being cut down. We have seen a dramatic decrease in that kind of activity," Inglewood Police Lt. Hampton Cantrell said Monday. "Nighttime traffic, walking on the streets, nighttime parties--we have pretty much eliminated those."
The broad survey--347 cities responded--by the U.S. Conference of Mayors did not include a statistical analysis of the effect curfews have had on crime. Rather, it canvassed opinions of city and police officials, and offered a largely anecdotal view.
About a third of the nation's 1,010 cities with more than 30,000 residents participated in the survey. Of those, 88% said curfew enforcement helped make streets safer; 83% said curfews helped curb gang violence. Only 23% said they had found it difficult or expensive to implement the laws.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, disputed the survey's findings, noting that "crime statistics are just down all over, in cities that have curfews and cities that don't have curfews."
The newly popular ordinances--which the ACLU has challenged in court--violate the rights of youths as well as parents, she said.
"Parents have the right to set limitations on their own children and should be involved in seeing that their rules and restrictions are carried out--not Big Brother, not the state," Ripston said. "This is an attempt to get at juvenile crime because the other solutions are too hard. This is just the easiest way out for a community."
Though an appeals court handed the ACLU a victory in June by striking down San Diego's tough curfew law, the city immediately passed a narrower law fashioned after one that has won a federal court's favor. The next legal battle comes in Monrovia, where Rosemary Harrahill is leading a group of parents in fighting that city's daytime curfew.
Harrahill, who teaches 16-year-old Jess and 14-year-old Ben-Joe at home, said she resents the police requirement that her sons carry fluorescent-orange cards to signify they have permission to be outside. She said the boys were stopped 22 times over nine months as they walked home from the public school where they take one or two classes.
"It's ridiculous. When in history has a specific class of people been singled out and numbered?" Harrahill said. "There is something much more insidious in these curfews than what is on the surface--it's control. We have shades of a police state coming.
"I object," she added. "I object roundly to this persistent, unnecessary government interference of my kids constantly having to prove themselves. There is no presumption of innocence in a curfew. Everybody's guilty."
But to the surprise of the mayors' task force on youth violence, only 14 of the cities in the survey said their ordinances are being challenged in court. Rather, it appears the curfew fad is growing--and gaining popularity.
The proportion of cities surveyed that have curfew laws has jumped to 80% from 70% in a similar survey two years ago. In 1995, a third of the cities characterized their ordinances as "very effective." That exact question was not posed in this year's survey, but nine of 10 cities responding said enforcing a curfew is "a good use of police time."