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Carlos B. Lopez, Constable

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Bruce Elfant

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Constable's Notebook - May 2004

In 1995 the Austin City Council adopted a daytime and late night juvenile curfew ordinance in reaction to the rapidly rising rates of crime committed by youths. The curfew was intended to project a zero tolerance stance towards juvenile crime by subjecting violators to potential fines of up to $500 while offering first time offenders services to deter them from committing criminal activity. The Austin Municipal Court obtained grant funds to employ a Youth Diversion Coordinator whose responsibility was to identify and work with first time offenders. Charges were dropped for juveniles who completed the youth diversion program. In 1998 the Austin Police Department touted the decrease of several categories of juvenile arrests, as evidence of the effectiveness of the juvenile curfew.

Late last year the Principal at Lanier High School asked me to participate in a work group comprised of counselors, community representatives, prosecutors and APD representatives to help them get a handle on the increasing rates of truancy and daytime juvenile crime around their campus. I asked whether the daytime curfew was being enforced at Lanier. Officers said that they were writing tickets but several students told us that they did not take the curfew seriously. My assignment was to study the curfew and determine whether it remains an effective deterrent to juvenile crime as was touted in 1998.

APD officers are indeed writing curfew tickets. In 2003 more than 2,600 curfew tickets were filed in Municipal Court. Six hundred and seventy-three cases (39%) were resolved, 1,976 cases remain active. Municipal Court officials told me that the Youth Diversion Coordinator position was cut which could help explain why only 81 (3%) of juveniles completed diversion programs and had their cases dismissed. Nearly 600 warrants were issued in 2003 for juveniles who failed to appear in court as ordered, but APD does not actively work these warrants. More than 12,000 juvenile warrants are currently outstanding, 9,000 for failure to appear, which might explain why Lanier students I spoke to did not fear being arrested. Municipal Court or APD officials have not provided the requested data that would indicate whether the curfew continues to deter juvenile crime.

District Court Judge Jeanne Meurer has said that when dealing with juveniles we must tell them what we mean and then we must mean it. When city officials implemented the juvenile curfew, certainly they expected that first time offenders would be given the opportunity to complete a diversion program, those found guilty would be fined and those who failed to appear would also be held accountable. Given these findings and the fact that juvenile crime is again on the rise in many areas of our community, it is not clear whether the curfew ordinance has retained its effectiveness. The City Council should direct the curfew ordinance to be evaluated and determine whether it is effective, could be improved or should be scrapped in favor of more cost effective strategies to reduce juvenile crime.



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