- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Beginning this evening, D.C. youths must be indoors by 11 p.m. The intent of the curfew law is precisely as it was when enacted several years ago. Now, unlike then, however, we urge the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) toward stricter enforcement.

The D.C. Council approved the Juvenile Curfew Act in 1995. A lawsuit questioning its constitutionality tied it up in court until June 1999, when the U.S. appeals court found it constitutional. MPD reinstated enforcement that same year.

The law itself, which has loopholes that pass First Amendment muster, is tough. Between September and June, juveniles under the age of 17 must not be in any public place, including a park, or inside any establishment after 11 p.m. on weeknights unless they are involved in job-related activities or other such activities. The law calls for imposing penalties on both juveniles and their parents. Juvenile violators will be taken to so-called curfew centers and handed over to their parents, or, if not picked up by 6 a.m., remanded to the custody of child and family services. Youths 12 and under automatically will be handed over to child and family services. Minors who violate the law may be ordered to perform up to 25 hours of community service, a lenient sentence considering community service is now required to graduate from high school. Parents face stiffer penalties, including a fine up to $500. Violators can challenge the law by exercising their First Amendment rights, including the right to assemble, and the free exercise of speech and religion. The law applies to non-D.C. citizens as well — so parents and teens from neighboring suburbs be forewarned.

The curfew law is an underutilized law-enforcement tool, as police grapple with stemming teen-on-teen violence, auto thefts and in-school violence. Overall auto theft, for example, is down by about 4 percent, while the number of juveniles arrested for auto theft is up 10 percent. Also, there were several shootings in the past school year, forcing police to have considerable say in school safety plans. What must happen now is for school authorities to remind parents that they can and will be held accountable for their children’s whereabouts and illegal actions.

In an ideal world, Officer Friendly would carry the message door-to-door. But in today’s violent world, even Officer Friendly can become a bull’s-eye for gangs and criminals hellbent on spilling blood. Best to let school workers play the good cops and officers be the enforcers. Two distinct messages should be carried by two distinct types of messengers.

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