'Operation Night Light' Keeps Offenders In for the Evening
Police, probation officers join to enforce curfews
Operation Night Light starts with a knock on the door. "Boston police!" yells detective Robert Fratalia of the Youth Violence Strike Force. A wide-eyed grandmother opens the apartment door. Mr. Fratalia towers over her.Skip to next paragraph
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"Evening, ma'am," he says quietly. With him are his partner, detective Fred Waggett, and Tony Wright, a probation officer. "Is George here?"
If he isn't, George is breaking a court-ordered curfew as a condition of being put on probation for drug use.
Operation Night Light, a cooperative effort between the Boston police and the probation department, sends officers on nightly visits to the homes of young probationers up to age 22. The program is part of a growing number of efforts designed to help keep offenders from committing more crimes.
In contrast to the increasing focus at both the state and national level on prison sentences for young offenders, a growing number of communities are choosing to intervene instead through community-based programs. Such efforts, many experts say, can effectively reach all but the most violent offenders, helping to prevent crime and change behavior. And they can be operated at less than half the cost of locking up offenders in already crowded prisons.
In response to the Boston officers' visit, George suddenly appears in the doorway of a small, cluttered bedroom; he is sullen and scared. Mr. Wright breaks the bad news.
"George, you had a dirty urine test." Traces of cocaine were found in a random test required as part of George's probation. George is silent, his eyes cast down. The officers ask to search his room. George steps aside. His girlfriend stands nearby.
While the officers go through the room, George's grandmother alternately defends and complains about her grandson. "He's always asking me for money," she says. "I never see him with no money, so how can he be a big-time dealer? I talk to him, but he don't listen."
The police find an old cigar box with seven bullets in it and a packet of plastic baggies commonly used on the streets to peddle drugs. But no drugs are found in the room. "It doesn't look good," says Wright, who strongly suggests that George and his grandmother come to the office tomorrow for a talk. "Yes, we'll be there," the grandmother says.
Operation Night Light was launched four years ago as a result of a rapidly escalating homicide rate in Boston. The police cracked down, sending more youths to court, thereby increasing the contact between police and probation officers in and around courtrooms.
"Both departments began to see how much they knew about gangs that could be shared," says Bernard Fitzgerald, chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court. Police and probation officers formed Operation Night Light to replace a street program that was discontinued.
Fratalia and another officer checked curfews for the first time late in 1992. Across Massachusetts now, 15 jurisdictions use the program. Only Knoxville, Tenn., has a similar monitoring program, although it operates in daytime hours only.
The program's success in reducing crime in Boston is hard to measure because the stream of unsupervised youths feeding into street gangs remains high. Divert one youth from crime and often two others take his place.
Officers point out that building a life in the toughest parts of the inner city can be a daunting task for a young person. One Boston probation officer has seen 55 of the youths on his caseload either murdered or convicted of murder in the last five years. "It's difficult to measure prevention," Mr. Fitzgerald says of the program, "but I think we keep things from getting worse."