After nearly two years, Prince William County's curfew for minors has not achieved its goal of reducing juvenile crime, but enthusiasm for it remains high among parents and police and it should be continued, according to an evaluation presented yesterday to the Board of County Supervisors.
The report says that despite a number of public service announcements and the distribution of 40,000 brochures to middle- and high-school students to educate them about the curfew, awareness of the curfew is not universal among parents -- only three in four parents of teenagers knew of it. Even so, nine in 10 parents support the curfew, though their expectations that it will reduce crime has fallen significantly since 1997.
"We found that knowledge of the curfew is low but enthusiasm among parents is unbelievably high," sociologist Theodore Caplow, head of the University of Virginia research team contracted to evaluate the curfew, said in his presentation to supervisors. "Support for the curfew could not be better, even though parents don't expect much."
The board originally approved the curfew ordinance in January 1997 as a means to reduce crimes committed by and against juveniles, a goal the curfew has not achieved, according to the study. Nonetheless, Caplow recommended the curfew be continued because of its popularity among parents and police.
Supervisors said their constituents also support the curfew.
"Parents in my district are so supportive," said Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge). "The curfew is not about being cruel to kids but protecting them."
Barg said the majority of middle-school students she has spoken with were also supportive. The report, meanwhile, found that most 11th-graders were apathetic toward the curfew.
Although the curfew has not achieved its original goal and has cost the county $210,000 to enforce, police are still calling it a success because of its effect of quality of life in Prince William.
"We are not surprised that the curfew has not reduced [juvenile crime], since a significant percentage of crimes occur before curfew hours," police Chief Charlie T. Deane said in an interview. "The link is more to nuisance crimes, the things that keep you awake at night."
Police also said the curfew helps bring potentially problematic youth who otherwise would not have been noticed to their attention.
"Some kids, no matter what, may slip through the safety net," police Capt. Barry M. Barnard said in an interview. "This curfew brings them to our attention and gives us the opportunity to provide them with services they would not have received otherwise."
The curfew makes it illegal for anyone younger than 18 to be in a public place from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and from midnight to 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The ordinance includes exemptions for late night concerts and movies, among other things, with parental permission.
Under the law, a police officer who catches a youth violating the curfew has the discretion to make an arrest, give a warning or issue a summons to appear in court -- flexibility that has increased the curfew's popularity among police officers and juveniles alike. Violators face up to 50 hours of community service for the first offense; a minimum fine of $200 and up to 100 hours community service for the second offense; and a minimum fine of $350 and up to 200 hours community service for a third offense.
Parents and business owners who knowingly permit minors to violate the curfew could be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum of six months in jail and fines up to $1,000, an element of the curfew that makes it among the toughest in the Washington area. Although parents and businesses have been issued warnings, there have been no adult arrests because of the curfew, Barnard said.
The most controversial element of the original pilot program was six police sweeps intended to publicize the curfew. Youths found in violation of the curfew were taken to curfew centers, shackled by their hands and feet and attached to a fixed object until a parent or guardian arrived.
The sweeps were stopped earlier this year when the costs were shown to be disproportionate to the number of arrests made. All the sweeps involved more county officials than arrestees, and the 65 youths arrested were but a fraction of the close to 1,108 juveniles arrested during regular and targeted enforcement from June 1997 until this March.
Both Barnard and Caplow recommended another study of the long-term effect of the curfew on juvenile crime. The continuation of the curfew will be discussed at a public hearing next week.