'Operation Night Light' Keeps Offenders In for the Evening

Police, probation officers join to enforce curfews

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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."

Their efforts may also help reduce the cost of fighting crime. In Massachusetts, minimal supervision of most probationers costs around $1,000 a year. But the average annual cost of maintaining an inmate in prison is around $30,000 a year in most states.

"We've never really done anything in between," says Fitzgerald. "Maybe we should spend between $4,000 and $8,000 on a guy in a community program, and save the state around $20,000," he says. "We know that programs like Operation Night Light can be part of a whole community effort."

On any given day in Massachusetts about 84,000 people are under some form of probation. Of that group about 8,000 are considered to be high-risk, requiring intensive supervision.

During the night, officers Fratalia and Waggett, and Mr. Wright, visit eight homes. No probationers are missing, and one boy is sound asleep in his room. "This turkey is asleep at 9:30 or else," says his mother. She thanks the men for coming.

Later, another mother, standing with her son and saying he was on the honor roll at school, mentions that he was attacked on the subway. A scar on his left cheek reaches from ear to chin. She refuses to allow him to ride the subway and withdrew him from the school. Wright discusses school options with her and they agree to meet soon.

A community program like Operation Night Light is welcomed more by parents than youths. "Sometimes parents don't know their kid has been arrested," Wright says. "There's lots of single family parents here, and they're looking for help."

For Michael Williams, who served time for gun possession and drugs, and is now a new barber in Dorchester, being on probation was a time to think through his choices. "I was listening to the stories of older guys going back and forth to jail," he says. "I didn't want to follow the same footsteps, so I had to change. What's worth more than life? It ain't worth being out on the streets risking your life for things not worth more than life." He says Wright was always there, "always ready to talk."

More than once, a youth on probation has used the excuse of having to be home for curfew to avoid gang activity. "Nobody wants to go back to jail for violating parole," Waggett says, "so it's a way for a kid to get off the streets rather than saying, 'I don't want to be in the gang anymore.' Do that and you're an outcast."

Caseloads for probation officers can be as high as 130, but many of the less troubling cases are seen only once month or less. Compounding the problems of the high-risk segment is an illiteracy rate of nearly 50 percent.

"Not every offender is the same, " says Don Cochrane, Probation Commissioner of Massachusetts, "and if we expect the school failure, or the employment failure, or the substance abuser to survive as a law abiding citizen, we need different types of controls and different strategies to deal with them."

In communities in such states as Iowa, Georgia, Vermont, Minnesota, and Connecticut various "intermediate sanctions" are increasingly used to control offenders' movements. These include house arrests, curfews, drug and alcohol tests, victim restitution, mandatory school or treatment programs (requiring some payment by participants), and electronic monitoring.

Recently the Massachusetts legislature passed a $486 million prison construction bond that includes $15 million for community based corrections. "Even though the money hasn't been allocated yet, some of our programs already in place need support," says Cochrane, "and with new funds we can bring programs to communities that need them."

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