Law and Order: Jury still out as America debates success of teenage curfews

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Curfews aimed at keeping teenagers off the streets have angered civil liberties groups in the United States. But, as David Usborne finds out, most politicians and police chiefs like them.

More US cities than ever before have imposed strict curfews on teenagers in an effort to cut down on juvenile crime.

The rising popularity of the curfews among politicians and police chiefs is recorded in a new survey of 347 different US cities, each with populations of 30,000 or more, released this week by the US Conference of Mayors.

The report found that 276 of those cities now have curfews in place, a marked increase compared with the last survey, conducted two years ago. Those cities said that juvenile crime had fallen by an average of 21 per cent since the curfews were put in place. In one case, it had dropped by 50 per cent.

The number of urban curfews in the US has been multiplying for several years and has coincided with a general hardening of attitudes towards crime. So far, however, none of the largest cities, like New York or Los Angeles, have attempted them.

Not all the cities surveyed voiced satisfaction with the experiment. A minority reported that youth crime had in fact increased since the curfews were enacted. Others complained that they were difficult and costly to implement.

Typically, the curfew laws require children of 18 years or under to be off the streets and in their homes from 11 pm to 6am. Violations are usually punishable by fines of up to $500. Often a city will stipulate that parents of the children must pay the fines. Advocates of the curfews say this encourages parents to take greater responsibility.

The toughest of the laws also extend the curfews to day time hours. In an attempt to reduce school truancy, children are barred from public places during regular school hours.

Attempts by some cities to impose curfews have been thwarted by constitutional challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that they violate the Bill of Rights.

Nor are all criminologists convinced of their value. "Curfews are a quick solution that don't do much," argues James Fox of Northeastern University in Boston. "They take up a lot of resources for little return."