Monday, December 14, 2009

City-wide curfews, and why they don't work

Malden, Massachusetts, is considering a curfew for its teenagers after late-night violence has rippled through the city. “We’re trying to help them to stay safe, to keep them from getting into mischief,’’ Ward Six Councilor Neil Kinnon, chairman of the ordinance committee, told the Globe's Kathy McCabe.

But as McCabe's article on points out, the people who are making trouble aren't necessarily teens -- and a late-night curfew might not solve the problem. In the first nine months of this year, 984 people were arrested in Malden, 55 of them juveniles. And only 11 of those kids were arrested after 9 p.m., according to Malden Police Chief Kenneth Coye.

Coye said most nighttime crime, such as vandalism or car break-ins, is committed by adults between 6 p.m. and midnight.

So what's the real point of the curfew? And does trying to enforcing an arbitrary one like this just encourage kids to break it?

The curfew would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 17 to be out in public without an adult during school hours, between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays, and between midnight and 6 a.m. weekends and holidays. Kids would have to clear out of restaurants and movie theaters by 10:30 p.m., and businesses would have to make sure that the curfew hours were clearly posted.

There would be exceptions, of course. If you're a teen with a job -- say, waiting tables at a restaurant -- you might not be able to leave at 10:30 p.m. as per the curfew's requirements. Attending educational, civic, and religious events would be allowed, too.

In September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a similar curfew in Lowell, which had been on the books since 1994, saying that the criminal penalties faced by minors who broke the law (arrest and possible placement in state custody) were too broad to be constitutional, no matter the city's safety goals. Lowell was allowed to levy a $50 fine instead, and that's the punishment Malden is choosing, too.

I don't know how many $50 have been collected in Lowell, but I do wonder if it's been enough to pay for the extra time police have to spend patrolling the streets late at night for anyone who looks like a minor.

Public curfews haven't met with much success elsewhere. In Canada, not a single town has been able to keep their curfew after facing a legal challenge, and some of their cut-offs have been hours later than the one Malden is proposing.

As a teenager, I had a curfew -- imposed by my parents. And the penalties for breaking it were more fearsome than a $50 fine.

Parents, what do you think? Can a city keep kids safe via a curfew? Or does it encourage kids to sneak around, making it harder for parents to know where their kids really are?

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