Who Do We Curfew?

Among the current high-profile assaults on crime and social disorder is a renewed enthusiasm for curfews to keep young people off the streets at night.

Among the current high‑profile assaults on crime and social disorder is a renewed enthusiasm for curfews to keep young people off the streets at night.

I have this old‑fashioned notion that people should be punished for what they do, not who they are. However, most folks seem to agree with my husband, who ‑‑ after raising five children ‑‑ believes that being a teenager is a crime.

The problem with writing his understandable prejudice into our laws is that it is inconsistent with the American justice system, which requires that some behavior (or more accurately, misbehavior) trigger the government’s right to hassle you. We call that "due process of law."

Proponents of curfews argue that it is far easier and more effective to take all teenagers off the streets than to insist that police arrest only those who are engaged in some wrongful activity. That is undoubtedly true. It would also make police work easier if everyone had to stay indoors between, say, eleven at night and six the next morning. Most of us would object to such a law, on the quite reasonable grounds that the vast majority of adults are law‑abiding and should not be penalized or inconvenienced just because a few other adults commit crimes.

Ah, but children are a different manner. What we are really doing with curfews, according to their defenders, is helping beleaguered parents control their children. This same desire to be helpful to parents has motivated recent efforts to censor library videos, outlaw "indecency" on cable television and the Internet, and subject some schoolchildren to highly personal questions about what goes on in their homes. The unspoken theory  behind these benign "interventions" is that the State is graciously allowing us to raise our own children, but only if we do so in a manner approved by a majority of our neighbors.

A free society rests on precisely the opposite premise: that the State exercises only such authority as its citizens allow. We authorize law enforcement officers to act when someone is harming the person or property of another. We do not expect them to interfere with our lawful comings and goings, nor do we expect them to decree that otherwise lawful behavior is criminal when engaged in by members of a certain group.

Whether curfews really reduce the incidence of teenage crime is subject to debate. Some studies claim success; others cast doubt on those claims. For me, their effectiveness or lack thereof is irrelevant. Even if curfews reduce mischief in the short run, I believe they convey a dangerous and un‑American message to young people who will soon assume the duties of citizenship in a free society; it’s who you are, not what you do, that counts.