America's Curfew Debate

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the economy, Monday, Dec. 14, 2009, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, after his meeting with financial services executives. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Not so long ago, you couldn't watch TV late at night without hearing this announcement: "It's 10:30 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

It was a reminder to parents that anyone younger than 17 was supposed to be off the streets and at home.

There was a time that curfews weren't questioned. They just were. But that's not the case anymore.

"It's not fair. They think all kids are bad, but we're not," 13-year-old Jose Regalado said as he took a break from an evening basketball game at a Chicago YMCA. He and other teens there complained that police go out of their way to hassle them, even when they're rushing home shortly after curfew has begun.

Now even as a number of cities - from Albuquerque, N.M., to Alpharetta, Ga. - are pushing to add them in an attempt to cut crime, others are being hit with lawsuits that challenge their curfews' constitutionality.

Last week in Vernon, Conn., for instance, the town council decided to not to appeal a federal court ruling that upheld a ban on the town's decade-old curfew.

"I was happy to see it go away," says Dr. Ellen Marmer, a pediatric cardiologist who is also the town's new mayor. She says Vernon should spend its money on positive activities for youth, including a new skateboarding park.

"If you keep telling kids 'no' all the time and don't give them a 'yes' part, they're going to rebel," Marmer says. "You have to keep a balance."

The Vernon curfew had been challenged by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, which argued that curfews violated parents' right to set their own children's curfew.

Andy Herm - who filed his own federal lawsuit to fight Denver's curfew when he was 17 - agrees, but also believes the courts should consider young people's rights.

His 2002 lawsuit argued that curfews violate the Fourth Amendment and its protections against unreasonable search and seizure (in this case ID). The suit also contended that the curfew impeded minors' First Amendment rights during curfew hours.

"I was rather tempted to hold a protest against the curfew after curfew hours," says Herm, now 19 and a sophomore at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

He raised the $150 to file the suit by collecting donations, a dollar at a time, from students at school. And his dad, an attorney, explained how to file the suit.

In the end, however, it was thrown out because - besides having to obey a curfew if their cities have one - minors in Colorado are not allowed to file lawsuits.

Either way, at least one legal expert says he would've been surprised if the court sided with a teen.

"We don't have a country where people take very seriously the idea that young people deserve a lot of freedom," says Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in children's rights.

Police, meanwhile, argue that curfews help reduce juvenile crime - a claim some researchers dispute - while preventing young people from becoming crime victims. Albuquerque's mayor, for instance, began asking lawmakers for a statewide curfew after a 16-year-old was shot in a park in the early morning hours last August.

"If you're 16 or younger, you belong in the house, not standing on a street corner," says Chicago police spokesman Pat Camden whose department caught 40,335 curfew violators last year.

Many Chicago residents support the curfew. They include Kathy Posner, a retiree who serves on her neighborhood's police advisory board.

"Unfortunately, many parents in lower-income areas work at night and are not around to correctly supervise their teenage children," she says.

Mike Males, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that, indeed, there is a perception that curfews make a city safer. But his research has found that juvenile crime rates in such cities as San Francisco actually went down when curfews were abolished.

He says curfews also tend to punish kids who aren't doing anything wrong - and often disproportionately target black and Hispanic youth.

In Vernon, Conn., he found that of 410 youth cited for violating curfew from 1995 to 1998, only seven were committing crimes, served with warrants or identified as runaways.

Frank Sanchez, the Atlanta-based director delinquency prevention Boys & Girls Clubs of America, says communities should focus on providing programs and safe havens after school into the early evening - the time when statistics show that most juveniles are victims of violent crime, or commit crimes themselves.

Imposing a curfew, Sanchez says, is like "putting a Band-Aid on the problem."

By Martha Irvine