In a recent piece titled “Tyranny of the Fearful,” 1 I noted a disturbing campaign by some Utah officials to banish minors from the realm of everyday life. One recent example included criminal prosecution of a West Jordan mother who allowed her two sons to walk to school while she stayed at home to care for their ill sibling. A West Jordan police officer objected to the boys walking on neighborhood streets even though school bus service had terminated due to budget cuts.
Utah lawmakers recently enacted a statute allowing law enforcement to harass or criminally prosecute parents for temporarily leaving a child in a vehicle, even in situations where the duration is very short and no child is actually harmed. 2 The law further widens opportunities to arbitrarily search vehicles, seize vehicles and engage in racial profiling.
Provo recently pressed matters to a new extreme with a proposed city ordinance imposing a daytime curfew on all minors ages 6-17. Provo already has a nighttime curfew that applies to all children under age 16, but the proposed daytime curfew would have the practical effect of allowing Provo police to criminally cite, search, arrest and detain any minor not at the minor’s home or school. Any parent of such a child would be subject to a criminal misdemeanor if a court decided the parent had reason to know a child was not at home or school. Any “operator or employee of an establishment,” such as, for example, a shop owner, would be guilty of a criminal misdemeanor if they saw a minor on their premises and failed to promptly contact law enforcement about the potential violation. Any adult who had a youthful appearance – such as a BYU or UVU student – could in broad daylight be stopped, questioned, required to provide identification, and scrutinized for violation of any other law.
The official Provo city website acknowledges that “[m]ost teenagers feel that curfew laws are unfair” but claims that “such laws are made to protect them.” This is because youth “will gather together in restaurants, convenience stores, or just about anywhere to pass the time or share exciting news.” Pre-emptive confinement through curfew is needed because “[i]f a juvenile is found at the wrong place at the wrong time where a crime is taking place, he/she could become involved, either as a victim or a suspect.” 3
A leading sponsor of the proposed ordinance, Councilwoman Midge Johnson, publicly stated the daytime curfew would aid “crime prevention.” “I think [the government] ought to be able to just stop kids, and if they’re out legally they’ll have a card. … I go through the metal detectors at the airport every time I go through there … because [the government is] trying to protect us.” 4
Provo Mayor John Curtis, another initial supporter, told the Deseret News that the curfew is a potential solution to a nonexistent problem: “Our goal is to be proactive on gangs. We don’t have a serious gang problem, and we like that. We want to be way ahead of this thing.” 5 Provo City Police Sgt. Matt Siufanua, a key lobbyist for the proposed ordinance, told The Salt Lake Tribune that the ordinance would “motivate [youth] to go to school, either by citation or arrest.” 6
Although often well-intentioned, most daytime curfews are an affront to a correct understanding of the U.S. Constitution, including various provisions of the First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments. 7 The legal reasons for this have been thoroughly explained by some courts – and ignored by others – as noted elsewhere by various concerned citizens.
But quite apart from legal issues, curfews are poor public policy. Waging a Kulturkampf against young people is ultimately counterproductive. It conveys an adult animus and fear toward minors, substitutes indifference for engagement, and relies upon punitive confinement instead of engaging proactive personal development. It encourages an unhealthy, concentered, fearful, Ritalin-induced lifestyle for children. It engenders contempt for civic authority even while conditioning future voters to accept overbearing governmental intrusion.
Government officials and law enforcement exist to protect our right to determine our own lives, not tell us how to live our lives. They exist to keep our neighborhoods safe for children, not free from children. They exist to imprison the guilty, not the innocent.
Some youth undeniably lack adequate parental supervision or engage in actions that pose a danger to themselves and others. To the extent a juvenile has actually been adjudicated guilty of mischief, it may indeed be sensible for Provo to impose a strict regimen of curfews and probationary monitoring to help the wayward minor establish more productive habits. Hardened delinquents who persist in wrongdoing should receive stiff punishment. However, treating every minor as a convicted criminal imposes an unacceptably high opportunity cost upon our society.
Most students are not motivated to excel by the threat of citation or arrest. Moreover, existing government schools are often a breeding ground for gang and drug activity, not a solution to such. Unfortunately, the undisciplined, undirected social atmosphere in them often engenders gang activity by affording a networking platform to bad apples.
Rather than incarcerating ever-more reluctant youth in government schools and prisons, Utahns should implement school choice to create new educational opportunities that families actually want to patronize. This can be achieved through implementation of the Sutherland Institute’s
>Thomas Jefferson Charter School Concept for public education reform.
Despite the challenges facing Utah’s children, there is hope. To the credit of Mayor Curtis, he agreed to re-evaluate the daytime curfew concept after Sutherland Institute and others educated him about their concerns.
When concerned citizens intelligently engage their civic leaders, positive results can be achieved.