Teen curfews: Protect teens, curb crime, or just peace of mind?

To some city and law enforcement officials, that poses a problem.

The City of Atlanta recently announced its intention to enforce a longstanding teen curfew ordinance, lest kids 16 and younger roam the streets in the wee hours. Under the ordinance, anyone younger than 17 can't be outside their homes without adult supervision from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from midnight to 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Many cities and counties across metro Atlanta have similar regulations.

Proponents say the laws reduce teen crime and protect teens from danger, while critics believe the rules do little more than give a false sense of security to nervous adults.

"There's pretty much no question that [the ordinances] aren't effective in either reducing crime or preventing harm to young people," said Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, who has researched the effectiveness of teen curfews in cities across the U.S.

"It's basically designed to make people feel better about using a city at night, and it's an artificial thing," he said. "It’s a psychological law -- not an effective policy."

But some law enforcement officials say experience tells them the curfews are needed. While many said it's difficult to track juvenile vs. adult crime, they do see an increase in crimes such as car burglaries when school is out of session.

Sgt. Dana Pierce, spokesman for the Cobb County Police Department, said calls for police service rise in the summer, particularly as jittery homeowners report groups of teens roaming the streets.

"Part of that is because of the juveniles out there aimlessly, bored and with nothing to do," he said. "And we know that when someone is bored, they’re probably going to get into trouble."

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said recently that patrols will be stepped up at city parks, pools, recreation centers and potential trouble spots. Repeated curfew violations will result in tough penalties for the parents, potentially costing them a $1,000 fine and making them subject to 60 days of jail or community service.

Danielle Bell, a 14-year-old Atlanta girl, said she understands why people are nervous about packs of teenagers at night. While she has a strict curfew, most of her friends ignore theirs, she said.

"I think there is a reason to be concerned," she said. "Nine times out of 10, they're looking to get in trouble."

Bell's godmother, Malvina Hadley, who lives in Riverdale and teaches in Atlanta, said she has no issues with parents being fined if their kids are unruly. She raised her own children with an early curfew and now helps enforce Bell's 9 p.m. curfew. Hadley believes young teens can get into more trouble during the summer because they lack supervision and activities.

"I'm concerned that [crime goes] up because, as a community, we haven't provided the kids with enough constructive outlets. And you won't find many parents willing to sit in the baking sun at Six Flags or go to the movies with their kids -- they drop them off," she said. "We're missing that family unit."

It's unclear just how effective such ordinances are in either protecting teens or keeping them out of trouble. Statistics from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention show that juvenile crimes, such as violent crime with injury, typically happen around 3 p.m. during the school-year. On non-school days, violent crime with injury happens between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Crimes involving firearms follow similar time patterns, peaking between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.

In Atlanta, juvenile arrests made during the evening spike several times during the year: in April, in July and August, and then again in November, according to data from the Atlanta Police Department. The data do not break out the types of crimes or hours at which they were committed.

Melissa Sickmund, chief of systems research with the National Center for Juvenile Justice, said her agency recommends that, before enacting a curfew, officials analyze data to determine whether youth crimes typically happen during the targeted hours. Her organization hasn't found a clear link between curfews and crime reduction, she said, but that doesn't mean that curfews are completely without merit.

"Logically to me, if there’s going to be any real effect, it is not that the kids don’t want to get caught after curfew, but rather the police may use it as a tool to get the kids off the street before something happens," she said. "And for parents, that’s one more thing a parent has to get their kid under control."

Still, Sickmund said punitive policies are second-best to structured activities where teens can become engaged, if not tired out.

On a recent Friday afternoon, 17-year-old Chris Thomas and a friend walked the hallways of Lenox Square Mall. Thomas, of College Park, said he is subject to an official curfew, one that his mother has apparently stretched to her advantage: "She said there's a new law and I have to be home by 8."

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