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Concerns About Crime Prompt Cities To Enact Curfews for Minors

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Politicians across the country are answering the public's demand to do something about juvenile crime by turning to an old and often-criticized remedy: tough curfew laws for minors.

In the past year, cities in Florida, New Jersey, and Texas have adopted new curfew laws, many of which face court challenges from the American Civil Liberties Union. Other communities have resurrected old curfew ordinances in an effort to fight new crime problems.

In New Jersey alone, the number of curfew laws has doubled in the past year to 200.

Dade County, Fla., passed a curfew last month that prohibits people younger than 17 from being on the streets between 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. Sunday through Thursday, and from midnight to 6 A.M. on Friday and Saturday unless they are with a parent, attending church, at a sporting event, or working. Under the law, parents can be fined $500 if their child breaks the curfew more than three times.

"The problem with our country is these kids are being raised like animals,'' said Javier D. Souto, a Dade County commissioner. Mr. Souto said an upsurge in vandalism and theft must be controlled and that the curfew "sends a message to parents to control their families.''

The A.C.L.U. of Florida has already filed a suit in the Dade County Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of the curfew, arguing that it impinges on the freedom of movement of minors.

The A.C.L.U. is seeking an injunction to block enforcement of the law while it is being challenged. A decision on the emergency order is expected this week.

Daytime Restrictions

In North Arlington, N.J., the city council passed an ordinance last spring that requires children younger than 18 to be off the streets from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M., or face a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail.

The A.C.L.U. of New Jersey has filed suit on behalf of a 15-year-old boy who was cited for breaking the ordinance last summer.

Aside from the constitutional questions, Ed Martone, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of New Jersey, said the law, which allows parents to be punished with community service if their child is cited, is ripe for misuse.

"This is not a bad way to get back at your mom and dad,'' he said. "The kid will say, 'You're not going to let me go to an Aerosmith concert? I'll make you mow the lawn [for the city] for a month.'''

The A.C.L.U. is also monitoring a particularly strict curfew ordinance that passed last August in Texarkana, Tex., where children younger than 17 are restricted from being on the streets from evening to early morning all week and from 9 A.M. to 2 P.M. on weekdays, unless they are with a parent, in an emergency situation, or participating in a religious, government, or sports activity. Mary K. Fischer, the city attorney for Texarkana, said that since the day and night curfew has been in effect, juvenile arrests have decreased by 50 percent.

Joe Cook, a regional director of the Texas A.C.L.U., said he is "eagerly awaiting'' a complaint about the curfew to bring a suit against the city. "Everybody from the dogcatcher to the President says we have to get tough on crime, but this is not the way to solve it,'' he said.

To the Supreme Court?

In addition to the heightened concern over violence that is prompting cities to enact curfews, Mr. Cook said the latest moves may be due in part to a federal appeals-court decision last November that upheld a Dallas curfew.

The city of Dallas in 1991 had imposed a curfew for juveniles, which the A.C.L.U. challenged, saying it impinged on the fundamental right of freedom of movement. A circuit-court judge ruled in 1992 that the curfew was unconstitutional; however, the federal appeals court overturned that decision. Mr. Cook said the A.C.L.U. will decide in the next few weeks whether to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"When there's a high-profile case, people get on the bandwagon and say, 'This is a way to fight crime,''' said Philip S. Gutis, the director of media relations for the A.C.L.U.

Though many curfews are not enforced, experts estimate that 1,000 communities have such laws. City councils from Seattle to Orlando, Fla., are considering them.

Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center, said that while he thinks curfews can be beneficial, they need to be "tempered by some degree of reason.'' Curfews should be age-appropriate, and alternative activities for children in schools and parks should be developed, he said.

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