Children need a hand -- not handcuffs

July 18, 1995|By WILEY A. HALL

I understand the fears about inner-city crime and violence that led the City Council to seek to reimpose a youth curfew last week. But we are adopting a short-term solution that will aggravate a long-standing problem.

Too many of our children -- even those who will never commit a crime -- already view themselves as outlaws and the police as the enemy.

The proposed curfew, which orders police to arrest, handcuff and incarcerate young people, will simply confirm that belief. There has got to be a better way to protect children than to treat them as criminals.

The proposed curfew is very similar to the one that went into effect last summer. It prohibits anyone under 17 from being outside their homes after 11 p.m. during the week and after midnight on weekends. Young people caught violating the curfew will be arrested by police, taken to the Northern District lockup, and held until police or social workers can locate their parents. A police spokeswoman confirmed last week that officers, for their own safety, will follow normal arrest procedures, which include handcuffs. The parents of repeat offenders face fines or jail.

Police had arrested over 1,100 juveniles under last year's law. But the original curfew was suspended early this month amid fears that it may be unconstitutional. The mayor reportedly is prepared to sign this latest version pending review by his legal advisers.

The law's supporters say it will protect children from street violence. Just last week, for instance, three youths under the age of 18 were shot after what would have been curfew hours. The number of young people shot has skyrocketed in recent years, from 179 in 1988 to 542 in 1993.

And the public appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of such a law. In a recent poll, 70 percent of those questioned believed a curfew would be an effective deterrent to crime.

"Shame on us," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke last week, "if we fail to leave here today without doing our work. It is our job to do this for the safety of our children."

"I think we should do it as fast as possible and do it before more children get killed," added Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who represents many crime-plagued neighborhoods in West Baltimore.

But what if some of our children misinterpret why police are running them down, slapping them in handcuffs, and hauling them away? What if they fail to perceive that we are doing this for their own good?

In 1992, researchers found that many black teens who live in inner cities feel so alienated from mainstream society that even black leaders and celebrities are not getting through to them. Those teens believe society conspires to oppress them, according to a study by Motivational Educational Entertainment, a black-owned marketing firm in Philadelphia. The teens in the study believe successful blacks get ahead only by selling out. They see police officers as tools of their oppressors. And when black sports figures, entertainers, business people, or politicians say otherwise, inner-city teens do not believe them.

Young people who are surrounded by hard-working adults may use such beliefs as motivation to work harder. But it is easy to see how those youths who lack such role models can use their sense of alienation as an excuse to commit crime. Some inner-city youths, said the researchers, "have a chilling disbelief in their future."

Doesn't it make sense, then, to focus our efforts on pulling our young people into the mainstream instead of pushing them away; to helping them to feel like citizens rather than outlaws? Wouldn't it be nice if our elected officials doubled, and then tripled their attempts to help young people see alternatives, hope, a sense of communal responsibility?

Are there enough summer jobs for inner-city kids? No. Are there enough recreational outlets? No. Do we have the resources, or even the desire, to provide drug treatment to their parents? No and no. But we are prepared to make mass arrests.

The mayor has said he will use emergency funds to expand recreation programs this summer. The council views the mayor's plan as a complement to the new curfew law. No, no. Recreation and jobs should be the centerpiece of our efforts to help children.

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