A recent spate of gang violence that killed two girls and wounded four other youths has Spokane County commissioners talking curfew.
They’ll seek the state attorney general’s opinion on the constitutionality of getting minors off the street at night.
Commissioner Steve Hasson suggested curfew violators be given tickets and not transported to already crowded jails. If minors didn’t pay their tickets, they would lose their driving privileges. Parents who didn’t rein in their children possibly would be ticketed, too.
“I’d like to characterize this as uncommon times,” Hasson said. “In old times if there was a fight or conflict, people used their fists. Now their first remedy is a weapon.”
While only exploring the idea now, Hasson suggested a curfew affecting unincorporated parts of Spokane County would apply to everyone under age 18 and be instituted at 11 p.m. on weeknights and later on weekends.
Civil libertarians argue that curfews won’t prompt gang members to put away their guns at the stroke of midnight.
Instead, said Doug Honig of the American Civil Liberties Union in Seattle, they’re Band-Aids to juvenile crime and give police the discretion to roust anyone who looks young.
“We don’t think it should be against the law to simply be outside,” Honig said. “It sounds good. It doesn’t get at the roots of why people are committing crimes.”
Social workers who deal with children said a curfew raises a lot of questions.
“What does this policy say to the kids who are doing what they should be doing?” asked Marilee Roloff, project director of Breakthrough for Families, a new social service agency. “It’s a hard one.”
Coeur d’Alene police Capt. Carl Bergh said a curfew adopted there in 1961 works because officers enforce it only when necessary.
The curfew prohibits minors from walking or loitering on public thoroughfares or in public places from 10:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekends, midnight to 5 a.m. weekends.
From Jan. 1, 1994, through Aug. 15, 1995 there were 79 curfew violations, according to police records.
“I don’t believe we have ever abused this statute,” Bergh said. “We use it appropriately.”
Several cities in Washington state and across the country have adopted curfews. Many U.S. courts have ruled them unconstitutional; others have let them stand. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the constitutionality of curfews, Honig said.
Spokane County commissioners said they have to do something besides throwing a lot more money at juvenile crime.
“It’s one tool in the arsenal,” said
Commissioner George Marlton, the lone Democrat on the commission. “The driver’s license is the most important thing to a 16-year-old.
“If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” he said.
Phil Harris, the commission chairman who last month suggested chain gangs would help deter adult criminals, said he’s “100 percent behind” a youth curfew.
Juvenile crime in Spokane County is up 40 percent in the past year, commissioners said. County coffers are nearly empty.
“I’ve hit an element of frustration where I’m banging my head,” Hasson said. “I’m just going, ‘Holy cow, not all the money in China is going to reconcile this.”’