Night Owls and Jail Birds

Curfews are, constitutionally speaking, a gray area. The government orders certain citizens to be in their homes by a certain time, all in the name of upholding a highly subjective “public order.” Failure to comply with this order could result in legal consequences. Here in modern America, the whole thing seems very reasonable: we use curfews to keep those under-aged hooligans off the streets and away from the liquor stores and heroin dealers. But just replace “America’s youth” with “Jews” and you’ve got Hitler’s Germany. Replace it with “Japanese-Americans” and you’ve got the level of paranoia that plagued our nation following Pearl Harbor. Replace it with “African-Americans” and you’ve got America, 1776 to 1865 – much later in certain parts of the country.

I’m not suggesting that imposing a curfew on youth is the first step towards the government’s complete oppression and subjugation of American teens, but it’s worth noting that curfews do not have a stellar human rights record. Perhaps as a result, modern curfews are imposed by state and local governments with no national standard. Further, the enforcement is usually extremely casual: many authorities simply warn offending teens to go home or, in the worst cases, deliver them personally. It’s rare that anyone would be written a citation for “breaking curfew.”

But Orange County law enforcement decided to change that last week. On Thursday, Nov. 12, officers from every department in the county arrested all minors found to be breaking curfew and loaded them into a jail bus to await parental pick-up. And why did they take such drastic measures? Why were 67 minors forced to endure police custody for simply staying out too late? Simply put: to scare them.

I’ll be the first to agree that this is an excellent way to scare most minors: come down hard on teens that might traditionally get away with breaking a rule, and in the process show them the not-so-friendly side of the criminal justice system. It’s also a good behavior to break. Minors on the street past curfew are likely to be exposed to more drugs, more drinking, and less parental authority than usual. Plus, “innocence” is not a subjective term. If the cop sees you and you’re under 18, they know you’ve broken the law. In terms of practicality, a curfew crackdown is probably the easiest and most efficient way for police to scare minors.

Quite frankly, this crackdown is unlikely to achieve its goal. Consider what would happen if every time you answered a question incorrectly in class, the professor threw a poisonous spider at you. Would your response be, “gosh, I guess I need to be a better student?” Or would it look more like, “what the hell is this guy’s problem?” The point is that the crackdown is a disproportionate response and, as teens become more and more angry while waiting in a jail bus for mommy and daddy, it’s far more likely to breed an anti-cop attitude than a pro-citizenship one. A night of scare tactics only inherently reminds our youth that they’re subject to the all-powerful authorities and so they had better behave themselves. And, as most of us can recall firsthand, the most effective way to reach teens is not necessarily to remind them how powerless and weak they are when compared to “the man.”

Despite this, I will agree that a night in jail would still increase a normal teen’s desire to avoid it at all costs. But why would these normal teens need scaring in the first place? The Los Angeles Times’ interview with the arresting officers describes how many of the arrested minors were good, college-bound kids, simply caught headed from Point A to Point B after curfew. I’ll agree that this night likely had quite an impact on those teens. And yes, I’ll agree that they’re probably less likely to take up drugs and other criminal activity anymore. But were they ever? If the night in jail had the desired world-shaking effect on these kids, then it’s likely they’re too sensible to have considered turning to a life of crime in the first place.

On the other hand, there are the kids that really do need to have the authorities push them around. These are the habitual curfew breakers, the drug-dabblers, and the potential (or even current) gang members. And what did they do when the cops approached them that night?

They ran.

Before the police could even state their business, these kids took off running. They don’t need to be scared of the police; they already are. These teens know exactly what it feels like to be a criminal, and this little reminder does nothing for them. They need something else entirely: increased mentoring, more parental involvement, better economic conditions. The curfew crackdown provided none of these things, only a disturbing reminder of their current descent into crime. When the good kids have no intention of ever committing a crime and the bad kids already know and fear jail, who does this crackdown help?

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.