City Hall is having a big debate with itself about getting rid of the city’s long-standing youth curfew. We should do an experiment.
Try this: Rigorously enforce the curfew outside late-night teenage house parties in the affluent white Lakewood and Preston Hollow neighborhoods. Then re-poll everybody on how many people still support curfew.
Another solution I find myself thinking about sometimes, probably unworkable, would be to just get rid of kids. Not just at night. I’ll come back to that.
I speak from a certain amount of personal experience here, although going into detail would be indiscreet and would amount to a violation of the privacy of others, some of whom are now wonderful adults. Regardless, on those occasions when middle class or rich kids do get popped for curfew, in my experience which I cannot describe in detail, the cops usually are doing the punks a big fat favor. A ticket for curfew is what middle class and rich punks get after the police have made them pour out the booze and dump the weed. Because they ought to get something.
In some cases — at least according to stories I have heard from people whose names I can’t remember — even non-rich but connected parents of a teenager who does get ticketed for curfew may be able to hire very excellent legal representation, especially if one or more parents has some kind of career that involves familiarity with cops, courts, lawyers and the press (how to stay out of it). It’s a story I must have heard somewhere.
An excellent attorney might tell a parent, “I have gotten the punk’s court date changed. Show up with the punk at the new date.”
The parent might ask, “And then do what?”
The attorney, so I am told, might say, “Can you just possibly do what I tell you to do for once?”
To which, the parent, I think, might say, “OK.”
At that point, all kinds of strange things might happen, events that might seem impossible to the average person. For example, the parent in question might show up in court at the appointed hour with the punk in tow and find himself in a courtroom crowded with very similar-looking middle class and rich punks and punkettes. A court person of some type, not the judge, might stand up after a while and say, “All cases are dismissed.”
On the way out of the courthouse, the parent, of course, being a responsible adult, would deliver a stern sermon to the punk about what a close call this was, how the courthouse is the street of broken dreams, how lives are lost here forever and how the next visit might be very terrible, indeed. But then the parent might notice, to his surprise, that the punk is sort of skipping and singing a Michael Jackson song, “Beat It.”
Of course, if the parent were a journalist, he might seek to atone and to assuage his own guilty conscience by looking for an unrelated opportunity to expose the lawyer and the judge. It’s what we call journalistic ethics. I don’t know if that’s ever really happened.
None of this is funny, not even faintly amusing, when we look at the other side of the coin — the kid who doesn’t have connected parents or may not have parents at all. That kid gets fed straight into that voracious, money-hungry beast we call “the system,” with draconian fines no parent will pay, fines the kid can’t ever hope to pay, fines that will mount until they become boot camp the next time the kid gets stopped, then juvie, then, if the path turns very bad, hard time.
That’s a different path from skipping out of the courthouse singing, “Beat It.” Some kids can’t beat it. It beats them.
Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, who has led the fight to get rid of the curfew, brings irrefutable evidence to the table to show that the Dallas youth curfew, like most urban curfews, tilts heavily against black and Hispanic youths. My own suspicion, which I can’t support with any numbers, is that the curfew probably also does not work out very well for white kids who are poor.
In our society, as the result of centuries of brutal racism, poverty tends to overlap minority status when people are aggregated. People who are minorities are more likely to be poor than people who are not. That doesn’t obviate racism. But it doesn’t help poor white people much, either.
In the broad picture, none of this is news to anybody. According to a poll done last year by Public Opinion Strategies for the Justice Action Network, three-fourths of Americans believe the criminal justice system is in serious need of basic reform. That opinion is shared equally by Democrats, Republicans and independents.
That must be why the one thing our disastrously divided national government was able to agree on at the end of last year was a bare beginning at criminal justice reform.
Tell me this is anecdotal — OK, it’s anecdotal – but I can’t help suspecting a lot of white middle class and rich folks started getting interested in criminal justice reform after a lot of white middle class and rich folks started getting convicted on drug charges.
Early on, down lower in the courts, lower in the legal pecking order, the system teaches people that money and connections can get you out of anything. You can beat it. Imagine the shock — I don’t have to imagine, I have seen it in the courtroom — when a privileged defendant finds out he has run out of privilege.
The shocked expression you see on that face reminds me of something a cop friend told me long ago about getting assigned to a beat in Preston Hollow. He said he would rather work any day in poor South Dallas. I asked why.
He said, “Every guy you pull over for weaving in the lane in Preston Hollow starts out with, ‘Do you know who I am?’”
He said the joke, the real answer, is something most cops can’t say. The real answer should be, “Yes, sir, I do know who you are. You are an asshole. You’re drunk. You could kill a kid on a bike out here. You’re a drunk driver. The law doesn’t care who else you think you are.”
The problem is that the law does care. It always has, anyway. The guy doesn’t have to be the Duke of Earl. He just has to be a member of the right social class and have the price of a decent lawyer in his pocket, and all of a sudden he beats it, and the cop’s in trouble.
Over time, that becomes the social moral equivalent of a relentless water pressure, pushing, pushing, pushing the cops and the system away from the “Do-you-know-who-I-am” dudes and toward the easier side of the street.
It’s not noble for the system to lean harder on the relatively defenseless. It’s not right. But look at it this way. Say you’re the cop. The system keeps telling you and telling you that the teen curfew is meant for poor black, poor Hispanic and poor white kids, not rich kids. You pop a rich kid anyway. The rich kid beats it, and you’re the one who gets called to account. Now there’s a bad-attitude check mark somewhere in your file.
When do you say, “OK, I get it”?
The police like the curfew because it’s a way to tell punk kids, “Get the hell off the street.” And guess what? They need a way to tell punk kids to get off the street. And I want them to have a way to do that, especially since I don’t have a child that age myself anymore.
Kids are terrible. They can be. Rich kids, poor kids, white, black, Hispanic kids: they’re all awful, especially in that awful phase when they are physical adults but moral toddlers. Talk about a bad combination.
Kids are terrible. Kids are idiots. Kids are not susceptible to reason. The reality is that the cops need a way to tell kids to get the hell off the street and make it stick. I’d rather live in the 1961 Mexican horror movie El Mundo de los Vampiros than live in a world where teenagers are free to roam the streets at night.
The trick is making it fair, or, as we might call it, just. The system we have now, beginning with curfew, is immensely unjust — a big herding device, a warren of gates and chutes. One gate allows a kid to beat it. The next gate sends a kid to the outermost margins of society for life.
So, wait. What about my experiment? Kingston wants to get rid of curfew. I’m different. I’d like to get rid of kids. I propose a compromise.
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First, just to make sure everybody gets how curfew works, let’s make a big point of enforcing it equally in poor, middle class and rich precincts. Everybody’s kid gets popped the same. And let’s make sure the consequences work out the same way. No more fines. Everybody goes to boot camp.
All of a sudden, just as we have seen at the other end of the age-scale when the rich white adults started getting sent to prison on drug offenses, I think we’re going to start seeing a much broader interest in making the teen curfew laws more fair.
But will that mean getting rid of the curfew? I doubt it, because then we would all find ourselves crouching inside our homes, prisoners of a horror movie called El Mundo de los Adolescentes.
In the end, one of two things works. A just and fair curfew law. Or no more teenagers. I’m six of one, half-dozen of the other.