When I wrote about the wonderful daytime curfew laws in Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday, I was unaware of two timely topics. I didn’t know that around 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday a pregnant 16-year-old had been shot on East 25th Street in Chattanooga. I also didn’t know that Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw has been working tirelessly on a similar curfew plan in the 109 days he has served on the bench.
Judge Philyaw and his court director, Rachel Brock, have already drafted a proposal in hopes of having both a day and night curfew installed by our city’s leaders that would protect any minor under the age of 18. The proposed curfew hours would be from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on school days and from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday. On Fridays and Saturdays the night curfew would begin at 11:59 p.m.
“Since the first day I took office I have been telling everybody who would listen that we have to get our kids off the streets when they are not supposed to be out. I see too many horror stories of the effects of roaming kids in Chattanooga,” Judge Philyaw wrote in an email. “I have spent a lot of brain-trust power completely reviewing the way curfew and truancy issues are handled in Hamilton County.”
So what the judge and his staff have done is studied curfew programs all across the South to come up with the best parts of each program that they will present to City Hall in the near future. “This is a wonderful way to keep kids out of trouble,” he said in a telephone conversation later on Wednesday.
“The biggest hurdle is where we are going to take these minors until a parent or guardian comes to pick them up. It didn’t take me long to figure out we have a great facility in the Juvenile Court building. We don’t want to put these kids in jail. That’s not what this is about. We want to keep them safe.”
Judge Philyaw recently met with a group of police officers and, when he asked what they do when they see two 12-year-olds on the street at 2 a.m., he wasn’t surprised when the candid reply was, “We look the other way. “I see the problem,” the judge said, “You can’t put them in jail and the police certainly don’t have access to a holding area.”
So the proposal will include staffing the Juvenile Court building. “Actually you have three main parts – the police, the parents, and where to keep a child until they can be picked up by their family. The police see what is happening,” the judge said, “and I believe they are eager to keep minors out of trouble.”
Right now there is a case in Juvenile Court where three kids, all under the age of 16, have been charged with attempted first-degree murder. Another case involves two 13-year-olds who – on orders from a gang - robbed a couple at gunpoint and then stole their victims’ car. “A curfew might stop this from happening,” he said.
“I am more serious about this issue – getting kids off the streets – than anything else I am doing. Curfews are working in places like Jackson, Tn., Nashville and Mobile. The state of Tennessee has a Compulsory Attendance Law which is sometimes hard to enforce. A curfew violation is much easier and a citation to appear in Juvenile Court would be issued to the juvenile and/or the parent.
“What we have learned is once a city or town adopts the ordinance, it doesn’t take very long before adults and children alike realize we mean business. When a parent is fined, they’ll pay more attention to what their children are doing and where they are,” the judge reasoned.
“Mayor (Andy) Berke is working hard to make public safety a priority. I feel the curfews will be a great benefit and will make a noticeable difference in the amount of kids we see in the courtroom. Our schools are the safest place for children and, when they learn they better not get caught, I think our attendance numbers could easily improve. If the 16-year-old shooting victim had been in school this week, she wouldn’t have gotten hurt.”
Judge Philyaw, who was selected by the County Commission when Suzanne Bailey retired from the bench, said “nothing was broken” when he took the bench. “Suzanne did a tremendous job so now we can look at ways to get better because there is nothing that needs to be fixed. A curfew plan was already high on the list and (school superintendent) Rick Smith and I already have a meeting set up to talk about truancy.”
Is this great news in a city where a 16-year-old got shot on Tuesday or what?