H.R. Crawford, a member of the City Council from Ward 7 in Northeast and Southeast Washington, is about to introduce legislation designed to keep children under 16 who live in Washington off the streets and out of public places between 10 p.m and 5 a.m. on week nights.
Crawford's main reasons for proposing this is his concern over increased school truancy, criminal activity among juveniles and the abdication of responsibility by some parents for their children's late-night wherabouts. His notion is that permanent legislation not only would encourage parents to assume more responsibility for their children, but also would tell young people that the community cares.
Police Chief Maurice Turner also has asked Mayor Barry to introduce legislation calling for a late-night curfew for young people because "we've got to do something to fight crime in this city," where 35 to 40 percent of the crime is committed by youths. His idea is to permit police to stop and question anyone under 18 who is on the streets between ll p.m. and 5 a.m. on week nights and midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends.
Turner wants to have those without a valid reason for being on the streets taken into custody for questioning. Both men favor enforcing the curfew by penalizing the parents of youths who violate the law, with citations and possible fines.
Thinking about all this revived the ugly memory of the only time I lived under a dictated curfew. It was during the l968 riots here. It was a rotten, repressive feeling. But that bitter memory is not the only reason I feel that the perils raised by a curfew outweigh the possible benefits.
The people who are suggesting curfews have, I'm aware, a genuine concern about the welfare of children as well as about curbing juvenile crime, which is a very real problem. Many elderly people, in particular, live as virtual prisoners, afraid of young kids. Crawford says that during one period in Washington, 53 percent of all crimes were committed by youths.
Even those who largely oppose a curfew admit that it is a complex issue, made more so by the widespread fear of crime. "If there was a curfew, chances are burglaries would go down," admitted School Superintendent Floretta MacKenzie, who says she is decidedly "mixed" on the idea.
But the crimes committed by juveniles involve only a small percentage of the overall youth population in the city. Do you penalize all of them to catch the offenders? A young person has the right to the same protection and same lack of interference as anyone else, unless he or she has shown himself to be involved in detrimental activity. A curfew assumes that all kids are guilty until proven innocent, when the Constitution guarantees that they are innocent until proven guilty. This, then, becomes yet another example of lopping off our personal liberty in the name of law and order.
Not only is this measure impractical because of the difficulties of enforcement and the burden it would place on police and the courts, but I'm very afraid it would be selectively enforced. We tend to have stereotyped notions of youth crime. To slightly overdraw the parallel, what passes as a prank in a rich neighborhood becomes a crime in another. When kids in affluent sections drink beer, ride around and shoot up cars, some people call it a prank, but it's a crime when a poor kid swipes food from the Safeway for his family's dinner.
I agree that many parents have boycotted the job of being parents, but is the city as superparent a solution? Some kids might interpret firmness as caring, as Crawford suggests, but citations won't solve the deeper problems: 50 percent youth unemployment, educational programs that must get better in order to give kids saleable skills with realistic outcomes. Our adolescents need, with our help, to internalize a value system that forbids engaging in illegal or immoral behavior, not a dodge-the-cops mentality.
Only Prince George's County has a curfew barring young people under 18 from the streets between l0 p.m. and 6 a.m., and a police spokesman said there had been no trouble enforcing it.
But a proposed curfew for Arlington County died a couple of months ago, and similar curfew laws have been unsuccessful in the past when they have come before the D.C. City Council.
Crawford admits that it's a tough problem, fraught with pitfalls. "I'm just trying," he says, "I'm trying."