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St. Petersburg curfew plan draws criticism

Council member Jay Lasita's plan, scheduled for a vote tonight, doesn't have support from a council majority.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The cities of Tampa, Pinellas Park and Largo passed juvenile curfew laws in hopes of protecting young people and keeping them from committing crimes.

But the idea is drawing passionate resistance in St. Petersburg, where opponents say juvenile crime is declining and that the proposed curfew would unwisely remove control from parents and place it in the hands of government.

The council is scheduled to vote on the curfew tonight after a 6 p.m. public hearing at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N. Five of the eight council members would have to approve it, but only three have voiced support and the others have expressed strong reservations.

Council member Jay Lasita, who proposed the curfew, says it would give police officers the chance to determine whether a teen is having some sort of family or drug problem that could lead to trouble. During the process of the curfew arrest, the officer could refer the youth to social services that might help, he says.

"Identification and intervention," Lasita said Wednesday. "I want to try to isolate as best I can behavior that can lead to things that are worse."

Council colleague Bea Griswold doesn't think handcuffing youths and putting them in the caged back seat of a police car will have a positive influence on their lives.

Council members Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster have both supported the curfew. They both think kids have no legitimate business being out in the early morning hours, and they think the city needs a law to compensate for parents who refuse to control their children.

Lasita, who views himself as politically moderate, surprised some people by proposing the curfew.

"We strongly encouraged him to drop the idea," said Ray Arsenault, first vice president of the Pinellas County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's targeting teenagers and making them scapegoats."

The ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the Pinellas Park law that is the model for the proposed St. Petersburg ordinance. Attorneys argued the law illegally infringes on parental rights.

A Circuit Court judge agreed and struck down the Pinellas Park curfew in September 1998, but an appellate court overturned that ruling in May.

The ACLU appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, where the case is pending.

"Politicians like to talk the talk -- and boy, you hear a lot about it in this election season -- about protecting freedom and family values and parents' rights," said Howard Simon, state ACLU director in Miami. "That's what politicians say, but it's not what they do. They're forever expanding the power of government, intruding into the rights of individuals and families."

Simon views a curfew as a political quick fix. It is easier for government but less effective than good social programs, he said.

The city Police Department has remained publicly neutral on the curfew. But it produced a binder of research on curfews in other cities, showing they have been ineffective or questionably effective.

The research also raises the issue of fairness.

"In Fresno and Santa Clara (California) counties, Latino youth were five times and African-American youth three times more likely to be arrested for curfew violations," the police research states.

These ethnic groups are disproportionately poor and might live in homes without air conditioning, video games or television. Parents more often work night shifts. And poor youths are less likely to have a car to drive and more likely to be walking or standing on the sidewalk. Council members Rene Flowers and Frank Peterman strongly oppose a curfew on the grounds that it would unfairly target minorities.

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