News & Opinion » Columns

The curfew's not ready for prime time


City Council may vote on a pilot curfew program later this month. If I were on City Council, I'd vote no.

The motivation for the curfew (one of the motivations, anyway) may be a good one. The theory is that youths under 18 who are out on the streets late at night are likely to have family problems or behavior problems and that through a curfew, we could identify those youths and get help for them.

Police would take youths to a center operated by the Hillside Family of Agencies, where Hillside staff would evaluate them and then call parents or guardians. And Hillside would refer the families to appropriate agencies if they needed help.

The hope was that the curfew would be in place in July. We're now in mid-August, and city officials are still working on the plan.

For good reason. A curfew is no simple thing. Young people have rights, and we can't just take those rights away willy nilly.

In addition, it's better than an even bet that the curfew will be selectively enforced, and that carries potential risks as well. (Maybe there'll be as much emphasis on looking for teenagers hanging out in the Park Avenue or Browncroft neighborhoods as in the predominantly black and Latino inner city, but I doubt it.)

City officials say the curfew isn't designed to criminalize the youths who violate the curfew. But police will have the names of these young people. What kinds of records will be kept? What will happen to them?

And what will police do if young people refuse to go with them when asked to? Will they forcibly take them to the Hillside center? Isn't that placing them "under arrest"?

Then there's the simple issue of practicality: a teenager who wants to stay out past 11 at night will figure out, pretty quickly, how to do that. Backyards and porches may replace the street corner for gathering places.

Beyond that, there's the question of the curfew's purpose. The community is frantic to stop the violence taking place on Rochester's inner-city streets. But a curfew won't do much to stem that violence: very few of the victims or perpetrators of that violence have been under 18, and few of the crimes involving children and teenagers have taken place in the middle of the night.

Could a curfew identify troubled young people before they embark on a career of violence and get help for them? Maybe. But if providing help is the goal, a curfew doesn't seem like the best --- or even the most logical --- way to go about it.

First of all, the front line in the curfew will be some of the city's most expensive human resources: cops. And there are numerous problems with that, even aside from the cost. We'll be taxing police during the time of day we most need them for serious calls: the middle of the night. We'll be asking cops to deal with teenagers, whose emotions are notoriously volatile.

Perhaps most important: for the curfew to be successful, we'll have to do much more than pick kids up off the street, try to find their parents, and provide referrals to service agencies. The long-term goal is to do more, but so far, many of the other important pieces aren't in place. To provide real help will require major involvement by a wide array of government, health, and social-service agencies who deal with families and children. That hasn't been lined up yet.

Maybe this pilot program will tell us something we don't know. Maybe it will give us a sense of the kinds of services these families need.

It's likely, though, that many of the teenagers we want to help are already known to service providers: to child-protective personnel, to settlement houses, to teachers and principals and school counselors, to police and probation officers.

John Klofas, head of RIT's criminal justice department, thinks that in a city the size of Rochester, it's possible to design a program that will help the young people who need help.

Klofas, who has just been named to head a new PublicSafetyInitiativesCenter for the city, has studied Rochester's violence problem for years. "If you're serious about violence prevention," he says, "you've got to identify the risk group." In Rochester, that risk group consists of black males between the ages of 15 and 30 in the inner city.

And, says Klofas, we're going to have to have "a radical redesign of social services in this community."

"You can easily underestimate the implications for the design of a social-service system," says Klofas. "You'll run into kids who you've taken off the street, and you'll find they don't have a home, or their home sucks, and now they're yours."

"The curfew will have an effect of not letting you parcel out kids to agencies," he says. "It will make you confront how dramatic the kids' problems are."

All of this, he says, "is going to highlight the fact that we have a population that needs to be managed very closely in terms of services."

"We've underestimated the level of intervention and the level of seriousness of the problems" of the so-called "at risk" teenagers, says Klofas. "I don't know who is in a position to pay for them."

Ah, yes. Who indeed?

There's the rub. With a financially strapped county, a financially strapped city, financially strapped social-service agencies: where'll the money for intensive services come from?

Can existing agencies do a better job? I don't know. Can we spend our service dollars --- taxes and charitable donations --- more wisely? I don't know.

But I do know that we have a lot of young people who need help. We all know that. The curfew is an attempt to help them. And maybe it's better than nothing. My fear is that it won't help much, though ---and that it'll make us think we're doing a lot. And that then we won't look for a better solution.

Playing the wimp card

The Bush administration, Republican leaders, and their best buddy, Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman, lost no time in trying to turn last week's terrorism news to their advantage.

The new line: Democrats in Congress and Democratic candidates who oppose the war in Iraq are soft and don't want to protect Americans from terrorism. National Republican Party Chair Ken Mehlman has taken to calling Democrats "Defeat-o-crats." Lieberman says that terrorists who want to blow up airplanes are happy that he lost and Ned Lamont won.

So let's just state the facts:

There was no connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. We did not have to go --- and should not have gone --- to war in Iraq. And saying so doesn't make you pro-terrorist.

The people who oppose the war --- 60 percent of Americans, according to recent poll --- are not all Democrats. Those of us in that 60 percent don't want terrorism, and it's beyond insulting to say that we do.

The Republicans are trying to act tough. But acting tough is what got us into the mess in Iraq. What we need now is intelligence, something this administration and many in Congress are sadly lacking.