Miami Teen Curfew Goes on Trial

During visit, black lawmakers fault emphasis on punishment in coping with crime

MIAMI'S curfew on youths under 17 has been temporarily lifted until a trial is conducted, but the controversy over this approach to crime control persists.

When the Dade County Commission passed an ordinance in January imposing a curfew as a crime-prevention measure, local black leaders approved. When the curfew was legally challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), officials from the Greater Miami Urban League and the African-American Council of Christian Clergy went to court to support the curfew.

Circuit Court Judge Norman Gerstein suspended the curfew last Wednesday. The next day, the city appealed, and, on Friday, Mr. Gerstein announced that the curfew will be suspended until a trial determines the law's merits. No trial date has been set.

The Rev. H.C. Wilkes, executive director of the African-American Council of Christian Clergy, said he was disappointed the judge blocked the curfew. ``We are letting criminals out early, and now we are saying it's OK for kids to stay out late. We are doing things that are encouraging crime. I'm tired of burying young people every day,'' he said.

A similar ordinance went into effect in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 13, but it has yet to be enforced. Sherri McCammond, of the Tampa Police Department, said police haven't figured out what to do with minors picked up. ``We have not yet decided where to keep them,'' she said. ``We may have to build new facilities for them. We have 90 days to comply.... There is a lot more to enforcing the law than it looks at a glance.''

Dallas plans to enforce its curfew law, passed June 1991, soon. The ACLU blocked enforcement, but the city won on appeal in November.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll taken three weeks ago shows that 41 percent of blacks want the federal government to tackle crime as its first priority - twice the concern blacks have for other issues.

But the Congressional Black Caucus, meeting in Miami on the crime issue over the weekend, worry that lawmakers put too much stress on punishment and not enough on education and drug programs.

The $22 billion crime bill the Senate passed in November, for example, creates 50 death-penalty crimes, life sentence for three-time violent felons, more prison space, and boot camps for teen offenders. ``They can find $22 billion to build prisons, but they can't find money for Pell Grants,'' said Rep. Craig Washington (D) of Texas, who has introduced an alternative crime bill supported by the caucus.

The Washington bill aims to deal with causes of crime and calls for drug rehabilitation for state and federal prisoners, alternatives to prison, sex-offender treatment programs, and community policing.

``What we are saying is: `Take half of the money, we know y'all are going to build your prisons, but give us half of the money to do something for the next 10 to 15 years that will address the long-range problems.' ''

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