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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Curfews are not the solution to youth crime in Columbia

By MARY HUSSMANN
July 6, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

David Rosman’s June 26 column, “Gang violence fix will require societal revamp,” was right on target.

Here are additional thoughts:

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Curfews are repressive and cause more rebellion and lengthen the distance to a solution that we all seek — stopping violence in our community.

I remember my father telling me how this works. He told of a high school teacher who, at the beginning of a school year, used his authority and boldly wrote on a chalkboard in all capital letters: “DO NOT WRITE ON THIS CHALKBOARD WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM ME!”

That year, this particular instructor had more problems with students writing on his board than any other teacher. The students interpreted the teacher’s rule as a challenge, and so it became a "badge of honor" to write on his board.

Granted, this teacher had a right to control “his” board, and we may not approve of the student’s actions. But whenever individuals, belongings or places are newly restricted by commands to obey, humans — whether we like it or not — have a strong tendency to resist and rebel and test its limits, especially if the restriction is seen as unwarranted.

Enforcing curfews

Likewise with curfews. How will parents be able to restrict their youth and put them under “house-arrest” night after night?

We like to think of our homes as a safe haven, an environment where we work to love and respect each other. But, city-mandated curfews produce a prison-like atmosphere and destroy those positive family intentions.

Curfews raise a number of other questions:

  1. Would the City Council impose a top-down law without consulting parents and children or considering how such a restrictive law would affect them?
  2. How would a curfew be decided on?
  3. If a young person, doing nothing wrong, is found on our downtown streets during “forbidden” hours, would the police give chase and use potentially lethal force in apprehending a curfew-breaker?
  4. Teens often hang around and talk to other teens their age. What if a dozen or more curfew-breakers in one location would need to be apprehended?
  5. How much would a curfew increase 911 calls?
  6. How much taxpayer money, time, energy and force would it take for our police officers and an already overburdened court system to enforce a curfew?
  7. What would the penalties be, and how can economically strapped families pay fines?
  8. What is the penalty if the same teen breaks a Columbia curfew time after time?
  9. How would families visiting Columbia learn about and react to a curfew?
  10. How would a curfew affect the relationship between police officers and residents and out-of-town visitors to Columbia?

If the teacher’s threatening blackboard edict serves as a lesson, we shouldn’t mandate laws where age and location alter the definition of wrongdoing and then be surprised when we see spin-offs of negative resident, tourist and police aggression.

A better safety net

Curfews aren’t the safety net we seek. We must stop pretending that curfews will restore more order. Resorting to a curfew that “boxes in” our parents and children into an unworkable situation will only increase problems and waste money.

Instead, I’d like us to think through how we can better invest in our families by making all of Columbia’s publicly funded events, activities and recreational facilities open to all regardless of their economic situation.

This is a big deal. I think about our taxpayer-funded Parks and Recreation Department. Check out the fees in their booklets and think of the large number of youth who live in poverty in our city.

Ask: “How can the youth living in this low-income bracket afford the required fees?” This lack of access to publicly financed activities is called "economic discrimination," and it’s been fueling bitterness and division for a long time.

Poor ARC solution

Recall, for example, over a dozen years ago, the campaign our City Council promoted for the Activities and Recreation Center. Columbia families were promised that, if they voted for a sales tax to fund an activity and recreation center, all Columbians would have access.

But when the fee schedule came out, it was clear that tens of thousands of adults and children would, day-after-day, be paying the regressive sales tax, but there would be no sliding scale and "those poor people" would, day-after-day, be left outside.

As one person said, “We can’t get in. We just get to press our noses against the glass.”  People organized and objected, but nothing changed. I now regret that I, like others, fell for that "access for all" line and voted for the ARC.

Bestowing bits of charity here and there will not address the disparity issue. Charity is well-meaning but sporadic and often gives access only to "lucky ones."

Our Department of Parks and Recreation should set fees based on one’s ability to pay. If we have the will, this can be done so that no one is embarrassed or seen as inferior. Also, there should be no charge for scheduled not-for-profit use of our ARC meeting rooms.

Equal chances for everyone

Giving everyone the opportunity to participate in the wide variety of Columbia’s indoor and outdoor activities will benefit us all, meaning of course that we’ll need a larger budget for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Another problem that can be corrected is that our city, year-after-year, gives funding and public assets to support several for-profit business events, but, because of the cost of admission, these events fail to make community access available.

Bottom line: Why do all taxpayers have to pay for what amount to private events? To correct this inequality, the council should require that if any event uses city buses, sanitation workers, police protection, fire protection, public equipment, public buildings, parks, etc., either the event must be available to all or costs for these services would be reimbursed to our city coffers.

Columbia will be less violent, and we and our children much healthier and safer, if we intentionally and creatively invest our public funds to create a city that is united and just.

Mary Hussmann is an organizer with GRO-Grass Roots Organizing in Columbia.