Lights Out!

by J.D. Tuccille

One of the cheap thrills of my teenage years was staying out late, guzzling beer bought with a Times Square ID, smoking bad dirt weed, and watching my friends squirm through their curfews. Some had early curfews -- say 11pm -- which left them with the choice of cutting the festivities short and hustling back home with a mouthful of breath mints and an eye on the clock, or else saying the hell with it and facing the music the next day. Those with 1am or 2am curfews had a better shot at holding out until the world spun around them, then crawling home before their folks woke up in the morning. I counted myself among the few who had no curfew -- as long as my friends propped me up for an obligatory phone call home, I was off the hook. Not surprisingly, I was one of the few never snagged for drunk driving. Dropping where I stood, yes -- but never drunk driving.

So I was less than impressed when President “Mine is Bigger Than Yours” Clinton announced his unswerving support for legal measures to bar children under 17 from the nation’s streets after 8pm on weeknights and 11pm on weekends. Trying to shake a growing up-to-his-neck-in-crime image from his legal difficulties with creative real estate deals and impatient dating techniques, Clinton does the old Victorians (and contemporaneous Bob Dole) one better, saying not only that children should be seen and not heard, but that he doesn’t want a glimpse of ‘em either. Curfews are a tough-on-crime move aimed at the U.S.’ admittedly soaring rate of juvenile experimentation with the joys of felony. It’s a strategy that may even work; New Orleans reportedly cut kiddy crime by 27% with its curfew measures. Of course, New Orleans is a city peculiarly suited to draconian crime control measures; arbitrarily incarcerating members of the outrageously corrupt municipal police force might have an especially strong impact.

But that’s the problem. Clinton isn’t talking about the family-imposed limits that my friends dodged in our teenage years, he wants local ordnances preempting family choice on the matter. No more 11pm or 1am parental mandate -- now you’d have the City Hall siren sounding at 8pm (no joke in Camden, NJ), and civil or even criminal penalties for curfew-breakers and their parents.

It will probably get results, too. If you chase people off the streets and lock ‘em in doors after dusk, their behavior tends to change. Maybe crime will drop, or maybe nighttime car thefts will simply become daylight shoplifting sprees as reportedly happened under Detroit’s curfew in the ‘70s. Hell, try to lock everybody in together and there should be plenty of arrests as kids dodge rules intended to make them spend more time with their parents (a horror unbearable to a teenager). My friends got tongue-lashed and grounded for their transgressions, modern kids will end up as Justice Department statistics “proving” the effectiveness of new laws. After all, if you make something illegal, then arrest people for doing it, you’re taking a big old bite out of crime, right?

And make no mistake, kids will defy these laws. Hell, breaking the rules is the nature of teenagers. If cops were perceived as the enemy when I was out late, just wait until jail time is thrown in the mix. I remember shutting off my car’s headlights and zipping into driveways to avoid passing patrol cars when we weren’t even breaking laws -- see the stunts pulled by kids as the stakes rise with mandated curfews.

And if the crime rate drops, or shifts, or stands up and does an Irish Jig as evidence of some result of the curfews, there will be calls to extend the crackdown and to experiment with other, similar measures. If a curfew can reduce crime among teenagers, just think what wonders could be wrought among such crime-ridden classes as blacks, or bikers, or Boston Irish politicians. Well, not the Boston pols -- they’re the ones making the rules and it wouldn’t do to lock them overnight in legislative chambers where they could simply wreak more mischief.

But I don’t doubt that drastic measures can reduce crime. And I don’t doubt that “success” in one area will lead to efforts in other areas. I do have doubts about a country that tries to substitute the age-old power-play between teenagers and parents with cops, sirens, fines, and jails.

So keep your eyes peeled. I predict a declining after-dark crime rate, high-stakes teenage rebellion, and tighter controls on the rest of us as the temptation to eliminate crime leads to the temptation to eliminate all opportunities for crime.

So kids, if you’re out there, I’m pulling for you. And remember, lights, turn, brakes, ignition. It’s a better bet than the new laws. But you better be good, ‘cuz I’ll be polishing my own moves.

From the Notebook

Maybe, as Yogi Berra would say, it’s deja vu all over again, but what the hell are those armored cars doing at the Freemen ranch in Jordan, Montana? Repeat after me: “Barbecues are for fun, not for law enforcement ...”

Ah well, and so much for the power of argument. So back you go to Full Automatic or to my home page.

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