Sunday, May 17, 2009

Daylight Curfew in Dallas

What is more irrational than an evening youth curfew to stem crime? We've just witnessed it passed by the Dallas City Counsel in a 12-2 vote, a daylight curfew prohibiting youth from walking city streets between 9am and 2:30pm on school days. The purpose of the ordinance is to stop crime and truancy by young people who should otherwise be in school.

Now, no one is arguing that youth should have the right or feel free to be truant or skip school without retribution. The arguments against such a curfew have more to do with the way it intends to go about combating the problem while recognizing that the problem still exists. Forget the fact that curfews based on age limits (meaning status offenses) lump all young people into the same boat regardless of whether they're committing crimes on the outside or not, and forget the fact that youth are the perpetrators behind fewer crimes than adults overall. Curfews have not been effective deterrents of crime in the past. There is no need to make being outside a crime for all young people and subsequently overcrowd the system with "school-skippers" when there are actual delinquents that the regular police force is more than capable of apprehending. But don't take my word for it, read the ACLU response to curfew ordinances.

Supporters of the curfew further hailed it as a critical tool in combating a rash of daytime property crime police in part attribute to kids skipping school, articularly in southern Dallas.

The key word here is "in part attribute..." meaning other people may be behind the property crime that aren't necessarily school skippers. The ordinance though doesn't target school-skippers, just anyone of a particular age that happens to be caught outside.

"To do nothing is to turn our back on the problem," Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said in support of the ordinance. "Kids are running rampant at this very moment. I have a problem, and my problem is that kids are not taking advantage of getting their education ... some are running the risk of ruining their lives."

Here's a very good example of the kind of thinking that goes into justifying something like a curfew as a response. The Deputy Mayor here makes the case that doing nothing would be turning one's back on the problem, so therefore, that entitles them to do anything (no matter how ineffective) to at least make it appear that they have a handle on the situation. That's politics for you, so I won't spend too much time laboring that point. In doing this though, they actually are turning their backs on the problem. Effecting a curfew to prevent crime is like locking a child in a dark basement to prevent sunburn. Sure it's easy now to say the child won't be sunburned based on the "action" that was taken to prevent it, but was that action absolutely necessary?--is the ultimate question. The only difference in this analogy is that locking a child up in a dark basement is guaranteed to prevent sunburn...enforcing a curfew on young people is never going to prevent crime.

Another major criticism of this ordinance is that even students who have a legitimate reason to be out of school will be under suspicion. Oftentimes doctor's appointments are scheduled during the school day (or at least during the school hours), but that's not a major problem. The question becomes more problematic when you wonder what they'll do on days when school is canceled due to bad weather, snow, or for other reasons. Do those count as "school days" too? I don't see a reason why not, so long as they are weekdays normally scheduled to be school days (and obviously not state or national holidays when school is not in session). Does this mean that in the event of a school cancellation, children and youth can be arrested while out sledding or building snowmen for no other reason?

Parents are once again a youth's greatest ally:

"We will find this will go the way of the panhandling ordinance. It will be ignored, and I think it will increase racial profiling," said Karen Eubank, a mother of a 12-year-old Dallas student.

"I believe we're going to fail our students with a curfew. I don't believe a curfew will truly help them get back in school," District 9 council member Sheffie Kadane told his colleagues before providing one of two votes against it.

Many Dallas parents and officials oppose the ordinance saying the answer lies more with schools dealing with particular truants and less with legislating against all young people. However, some disagree: "If children are not in school, they are not learning, and the people who are hurt most are people who like you and me." Yes, nothing keeps a kid in school like a nice suspension or a court date for skipping school.

For example, the council amended the ordinance to allow two warnings to any business that allows juveniles on their property during curfew hours. After those warnings, police have the discretion to ticket businesses.
Even doctor's offices? What about children who are home schooled? The ordinance does give young people "defenses to prosecution," which gives them the ability to protest against certain unreasonable prosecution for being outside on school days, including "medical appointments, work-study, and school-sanctioned functions." But these aren't helping sooth the naysayers, who rightfully argue that it will cause children to be detained, questioned, and potentially charged for being outdoors even if they have a legitimate excuse--a violation of a daytime curfew being a Class C misdemeanor and landing them a fine of 500 dollars. You can see why parents would be upset. There are more assurances, such as "community service" being the preferred sentence for prosecuting children and that these relatively minor charges won't affect their criminal records.

Curfew opponents had pushed the council to create "triage centers," or otherwise deal with daytime curfew violators outside the municipal court system. Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert acknowledged the idea, but said the city and school districts weren't yet prepared to make such an investment.

Once again, it comes down to money, time, and overall investment. Prosecuting young people is an easier and quicker alternative to dealing with the problem, and makes it look like the city counsel is really "doing something" about the problem. Once again, a simple bandaid solution to a complicated problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment