We can do many things to curb youth violence in the District, but a curfew law isn't one of them.

Since 1994, two years before the curfew law was enacted in October 1996 -- and suspended by the courts -- the District has seen a steady decline in adult and juvenile crime. In the time we've been waiting for the D.C. curfew to come into effect, the juvenile homicide rate has dropped by almost 50 percent (from 23 arrests to 12). Moreover, the side effects of curfew enforcement and the politics surrounding youth crime are anything but simple.

Today in the United States, more kids are arrested for curfew violations than for any other single category of crime -- including all violent crimes. Everyone from law enforcement to President Clinton has endorsed curfew laws. Yet no evidence exists to show that sending 142,000 kids through the justice system for being out too late each year reduces crime.

A study of California counties published in the Western Society of Criminology journal last fall found no correlation between places that heavily enforce curfews laws and drops in juvenile crime. In the few counties where curfew enforcement had any effect, it was associated with a slight increase in juvenile crime. When the executive director of the California District Attorneys' Association was greeted with these findings -- that curfews might increase crime -- he said it "defies logic."

Not really. Instead of doing the things that might prevent real criminals from burglarizing your house, police spend hours chasing kids whose only crime is being out too late.

D.C. police also may find that curfew enforcement will reduce their standing among the city's youth. Community policing strategies encourage the image of "Officer Friendly," a strict enforcer of the law but also a fair-minded civic leader. It will be hard for kids to remember that image when Officer Friendly arrests them for being out after 11 p.m.

I hope that the District's curfew experiment will be short-lived, because we won't be celebrating greater declines in juvenile crime by scapegoating the city's children.

JASON ZIEDENBERG

Washington

The writer is a policy analyst with the Justice Policy Institute.