Fourteen-year-old Bondo Mothatego, hanging out at Prince George's Plaza early one weeknight, seems an unlikely champion of the county's youth curfew law, which kicks in at 10 p.m. But as far as he's concerned, it's a fine idea.
"This one girl got abducted in my neighborhood," he said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis. "It's dangerous to be out at night!"
The County Council clearly had the same view when it passed the curfew law unanimously in 1995.
Now, however, a new government-funded study has found that, at least when it comes to protecting children from violent crime, the county law has had no significant effect.
Meanwhile, according to records provided to The Washington Post by county police, citations for curfew violations went to a disproportionate number of black youths relative to their representation in the county's population.
Together, the two findings give added ammunition to those who criticize youth curfew laws and have long contended that they infringe on children's constitutional rights and sour minority groups' relations with police while providing few, if any, tangible benefits to communities.
Nevertheless, county Police Chief John S. Farrell maintains that the curfew has at least proved a useful tool in preventing juveniles from committing crime. And a sampling of parents and children interviewed by The Post shows support for the law on grounds that having children stay inside at night is always preferable.
The county's curfew, one of hundreds imposed nationwide since 1990 by communities that include the District and Laurel, actually is a revision of an earlier, far weaker anti-loitering law that had been on the books since the 1960s.
The updated version prohibits unaccompanied children 16 and younger from being on the street or in public areas from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weeknights and from midnight to 5 a.m. on weekends, with exceptions for those engaged in work or other officially sanctioned activities.
Violators are not arrested but are taken home or held by police until their parents can get them. Parents can theoretically be fined $50 for the first offense, $100 for the second and $250 thereafter. However, Farrell said, police generally have given out first-time warnings. "We've had very little recidivism," he said.
This has contributed to a drop in the number of children whom police find on the streets, Farrell added, so officers probably will write about 300 citations this year, compared with a high of 735 in 1997.
The study of the county law was conducted by Caterina Gouvis of the nonpartisan Urban Institute, with funding from the Justice Department. It analyzed children 12 to 16 who were victims of violent crime--such as homicide, rape, robbery or assault--from January 1992 through March 1999 to determine whether introduction of the revised curfew had any effect.
Gouvis, whose study was completed in July, found that when statistics were adjusted to account for outside factors such as overall crime trends, there was no significant drop in the number of children victimized during curfew or non-curfew hours.
Currently, an average of 2.78 of every 1,000 12- to 16-year-olds in the county fall prey to a violent crime each month.
Protecting children from violent crime is only one goal of the curfew. The other is preventing them from committing crime.
In that respect, Farrell contends, the law has been very effective, providing police with one more tool in a campaign that targets crime in county hot spots and has lowered the number of juvenile arrests by 19 percent since 1998.
Meanwhile, critics of curfew laws argue that any modest benefits are more than overshadowed by their downside.
"Telling me when my kids should come home, that's a pretty big intrusion," said Vincent Schiraldi, president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a national group based in the District. "Without a very strong showing of a positive impact, the government shouldn't be able to intervene in people's lives that way."
Furthermore, he argued, "curfews alienate kids from law enforcement. It's just one more reason to distrust the cops, particularly if you're a minority, since curfews are often enforced in a racially disparate manner."
In Prince George's, 76 percent of juveniles cited for curfew violations last year were black, while 67 percent of school-age children that year were black. The disparity was greater in 1998, when 80 percent cited were black.
Farrell said these figures do not concern him. "Race is not a consideration in the way this law is enforced," he said. "It's strictly related to calls from the community reporting youngsters hanging out and police finding youngsters on the street."
Farrell added that parents of children picked up by police generally have expressed gratitude. "People are happy that there's been a follow-up and a response," he said. "From a public relations standpoint, it's been very positive for us."
The handful of youths hanging out at Prince George's Plaza an hour after sunset on a recent Thursday had no objections to the curfew. Although all but Mothatego said they were unaware of the law, they said they get home before curfew, anyway.
"My mom wants me home by 9 or 9:30 p.m. on weeknights and 10 or 10:30 on weekends," said Adan Diaz, 13, a freshman at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
However, both the children and their parents said they knew of many kids who violate the curfew.
"Basically, everybody stays out late," said Jody Ann Hyatt, 15. "If they go to a party, it can go until 3 or 5 a.m."
Maria Diaz, Adan's mother, said many kids are "outside late when they shouldn't be." She said this was simply one more argument in favor of the curfew.
Frank P. Casula, mayor of Laurel, the largest of several Prince George's towns with curfews, said that, at least in his city, the curfew is keeping children off the streets. "It's working here," he said.
Laurel's law was passed before the county's and is stricter, applying to children as old as 17 and encompassing school hours.
Although only a dozen children are cited every year, city police said the law has helped them combat truancy.
"We used to have kids skipping school, hanging out in a wooded area behind the school," said Laurel police Lt. Fred Carmen. "But since the curfew was passed, that's been way down."