The latest regulation to try to stem America's impending "epidemic" of juvenile crime came into effect on Friday night: a curfew on Washington teenagers. The nation's capital thus became the 146th of the 200 largest cities to impose legal restrictions on the movement of teenagers after dark.
Ninety of these have introduced curfew regulations in the past five years, a response to FBI figures which show that - among other things - since 1985 the number of murderers aged between 14 and 17 has doubled.
In Washington those under the age of 17 must be home by 11pm on weekdays, midnight on weekends, or face arrest. Those who break the rules and are caught will be taken to a police detention centre, where they will be held until an adult comes to take them away. The parents of repeat offenders face fines up to $500. Washington is one of America's most violent cities. Homicide is the leading cause of death among black males aged 15 to 24. Last month a 16-year-old boy was convicted of the execution-style killing of his grandmother and three other relatives. No American city has a higher rate of incarceration.
The news of the curfew in the city, where the black-led local government acknowledges that rampant crime predominates in black areas, has been greeted with as much delight by adults as disgust by their teenage children. At a meeting two weeks ago with 40 teenagers and 20 parents, all of them inhabitants of the city's rougher neighbourhoods, the mayor, Marion Barry, said he understood the youngsters' distress. "But no one has been able to tell me what a 15-year-old is doing out on the streets at 3.00 in the morning."
The teenagers' reactions, punctuated by much moaning and groaning, ranged from "parties often go on till 3.00 in morning", to "what if we're just out playing and we get put in a patrol when we ain't doin' nothin' wrong?" and "we'll just ignore it - catch us if you can". But the adults present were unanimous that a curfew was a good thing. An elderly lady in the group said she was fed up seeing children killing children in her neighbourhood.
From Los Angeles to Chicago, Cincinnati to Dallas, the responses have been the same. In some cities, polls among adults have shown as many as 90 per cent in favour of authorities forcing teenagers to stay in at night.
William Ruefle, a criminology professor at the University of South Alabama, notes that the last national clamour for restrictions on teenagers came during the Second World War when the men were away fighting. The atmosphere was one of loosened restraint and mothers battled to control children.
Today the social upheaval, at a time when the death rate among young urban blacks is twice what it was for the entire US military during that war, exhibits a not dissimilar phenomenon. The last 20 years have seen a spectacular increase in the number of black single mothers. In 1960 20 per cent of black mothers were single. Today the figure is 60 per cent. One in 14 black teenagers lives with neither parent.
Bearing in mind that 16 per cent of urban killers today are aged between 15 and 19, , it is hardly surprising to Dr Ruefle that communities are resorting to desperate measures. And despite the national fixation with individual liberties and freedom from big government, there has been no outcry for the curfew laws to be scrapped and only a few complaints.
"For parents struggling to control their children, it's a welcome thing to be able to tell them, 'Not just you but all your friends have to be inside now, or be arrested'," Dr Ruefle said.
Have the curfews worked? In some cities police say that they have detected a significant decrease in teenage crime, but Dr Ruefle believes the jury is still out on whether curfews actually do ease crime. One oddity of the laws is that although they are clearly aimed at the inner-city underclass, so far most arrests under them have been made in the suburbs of white middle America.
The only thing that can be said for sure is that since adults vote and teenagers do not, "city officials see putting limits on the freedom of minors as politically justified," Dr Ruefle said.
The suspicion has been expressed by civil libertarians that restricting teenagers' nocturnal activities may best be seen as an attack on the symptoms of America's social malaise rather than on its causes. This charge is lent historic weight by the etymology of the word curfew. It is from the French couvrir, meaning cover, and feu, meaning fire.Reuse content