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Truancy Crackdown Tied to Drop in Daytime Crime

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Daytime crime in Los Angeles has dropped a dramatic 20% to 45% in categories including burglary, shoplifting and car break-ins two years after a tough anti-truancy law was passed by the City Council, according to new statistics prepared by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Although crime throughout Southern California and the nation has decreased at a moderate rate over the last couple of years, the drop in Los Angeles for 10 types of crimes often committed by juveniles appears to be even more significant--at least during school hours, the study finds.

“This report clearly shows that where there is a truancy problem, a corresponding juvenile crime problem usually exists,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who wrote the 1995 ordinance. “When the problem is addressed, crime goes down.”

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In its research, the LAPD compared weekday school-hour crime rates for September through March just before and a year after the law went into effect. Authorities found that burglaries and stolen vehicles each declined about 25%, shoplifting dropped 33% and car burglaries plummeted 45%.

Overall, the 10 types of crimes frequently linked to juvenile delinquents dropped by 27% during school hours, and the study concluded that the ordinance was “a very positive step” in cutting crime and truancy.

The report, which is expected to be discussed by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee next week, also shows that arrests of juveniles for burglaries, car break-ins, thefts, shoplifting and car thefts have dropped by an average of 26%.

During that same period, school attendance increased about 2.6% in middle and high schools, the study found. More than 10,000 students have been cited under the law, which prohibits students under age 18 from being off campus without permission between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on school days and went into effect in October 1995.

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The LAPD study comes as lawmakers throughout the country target crime-prone youngsters with stricter laws aimed at punishing young delinquents more severely.

Earlier this year, Gov. Pete Wilson declared “open season” on gangs and juvenile offenders, introducing 20 proposed bills that, among other things, would make all gang-related murders capital crimes and impose a statewide truancy code for school-age children.

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LAPD Det. Ben Gonzales, who teaches officers at the Police Academy how to enforce the city’s 1995 truancy law, calls it “one of the better projects we have.”

“There’s been a significant crime reduction,” said Gonzales, noting that police agencies from throughout the country have contacted him to get details on the ordinance. “We’re very, very happy with it.”

City and law enforcement officials say the truancy law is not just reducing crime--it is also keeping youngsters in the classrooms where they belong.

“The greater societal good is being served by this ordinance,” said Wesley Mitchell, the chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s police force. “The object . . . is not to penalize youngsters. The goal is to get them into the educational mainstream.”

Nonetheless, the punishment is stiff for violators. The law carries penalties that range from $135 for a first offense to $675 for multiple violations. The fee is waived, in many cases, if the student attends school for 60 consecutive days without an unexcused absence or does community service work.

Anti-truancy ordinances, imposing fines and penalties on children who get caught skipping school, have become increasingly popular in the last few years in Southern California. The city of Monrovia was praised by President Clinton last year for its innovative 1994 truancy law, and in ensuing years, dozens of cities have followed suit.

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But some police officials say it is difficult to determine how much credit the truancy laws deserve for lowering crime.

Torrance Police Sgt. Dexter Nelms said, for example, that his city’s year-old anti-truancy ordinance hasn’t yet been able to hold a candle to the drop in juvenile crime that occurred about three years ago, when the school district began locking down high school campuses at lunch.

In Pasadena, where overall burglaries, larceny and motor vehicle thefts dropped between 20% and 30% in 1995-96, Cmdr. Wayne Hiltz gives only partial credit to a truancy ordinance that took effect at that point.

Citing the state’s three-strikes law and the nation’s general decline in crime--7% in 1996-- among other factors, Hiltz said, “You can’t attribute that to any one program or ordinance.”

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Criminologists say that juvenile crimes appear to be dropping nationwide even in areas without truancy laws. Arrests, however, can be expected to move upward, they say, as the youth population increases. California’s 10-to-17 age group is expected to rise from 3.6 million in 1995 to 4.1 million by 2000, according to a state task force on the issue.

UC Irvine sociology researcher Mike Males said he is skeptical about the success of daytime curfews and truancy ordinances. He is conducting a study of Los Angeles County crime that he says shows that the juvenile crime rate parallels the adult crime rate. When adults commit more crime, so do juveniles, and when fewer adults break the law, so do fewer juveniles.

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“The most astonishing thing is how closely teenagers parallel adults’ behavior,” said Males, a doctoral student and author. “I think it’s more productive for cities to do general things aimed at crime, especially at crime in the household, than targeting juveniles.”

Males said that laws or programs sometimes receive undeserved credit for success when other factors may actually be at work.

“The problem is that law enforcement agencies, when they have a low crime year, they want to call in the press,” he said.

Los Angeles city officials counter that their truancy law is getting attention because it works.

“There is a direct and proven link between chronic truancy and juvenile crime,” Chick said.

Before the law, advocates say, police in Los Angeles did little to combat truancy. Students caught ditching school were simply returned to their campuses, where they faced punishments ranging from parental conferences to expulsion.

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“This law is helping to stop the cycle of children and youth skipping classes,” Chick said. “It’s helping to keep them in school and ensure their ability to secure good jobs and help them go on to college.”

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The LAPD’s statistical review of the law took place, in part, because opponents of the toughened policy had feared that minority students in poorer areas and youths with valid reasons for being out of school would be unfairly targeted by police.

According to the study, Latinos, who make up 67% of the school district’s population, accounted for 61% of the citations. African American students, who make up 14% of the student population, received 26% of the citations. Anglo students, who make up 12% of the student population, received 8% of the citations.

Gonzales, a featured speaker on the law at school supervisors’ conferences, said police did not “focus on any particular group.” The variations occurred, he asserted, because more minority students have been truant from school.

A spokesman with the American Civil Liberties Union, however, said the figures deserve more scrutiny.

“We’re not accusing the department of racially disparate enforcement, but it raises a question when African Americans are being ticketed almost twice as much as their school population and whites are cited less” than their school population, said Allan Parachini, spokesman for the ACLU.

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Parachini said the organization, “had no quarrel, conceptually” with the daytime truancy law.

“We’d be the last people to say that kids who should be in school should be allowed to be out of school,” he said.

Times staff writers Shawn Hubler and Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.

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CRIME IN DECLINE: Putting L.A.’s changing numbers into perspective. * A series of stories in Metro explores the hometown ramifications of the drop in U.S. crime--how the numbers add up for Los Angeles’ people, communities and institutions.

* Today: Monrovia is an example of a dual effort cited by experts as one reason why crime is dropping nationwide: police crackdowns on petty crime and a civic emphasis on keeping kids on the straight and narrow. B1

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Lower Crime Rates

Percentage reduction in number of daytime crimes between 1994-95 and 1996-97 reporting periods.

Burglary: -24.1%

Burglary from vehicle: -45.2%

Grand theft: -21.1%

Petty theft: -19.3%

Shoplifting: -32.7%

Stolen vehicle: -25.3%

TOTAL: -27.1%

Source: LAPD

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