Immediately following the Independence Day holiday weekend, Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi signed an executive order restricting overnight access to the borough’s beaches and boardwalk. That’s not the kind of action any leader of a resort town wants to take at the very high point of the summer season.
Pagliughi was responding to large groups of juveniles congregating in “unmanageable numbers” and engaging in disruptive behavior and vandalism. Avalon is not alone. At a recent council meeting in neighboring Sea Isle City residents’ spoke out about the behavior they are seeing after dark. There were reports of memorial benches being vandalized and thrown into the dunes. In Beach Haven a special meeting of the governing body was called to deal with the problem of large crowds of teens disrupting traffic and businesses.
So how did we get here? What is different this year that is leading to this kind of group behavior by juveniles? Pagliughi has his perspective on it. He sees it as a “direct result of Governor Murphy’s destruction of effective enforcement of laws pertaining to juveniles, and the elimination of certain police powers.”
Last November the voters of New Jersey overwhelmingly supported a referendum to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana. From that vote we have traveled a circuitous route that has led to the effective legalization of marijuana use by young people of any age.
The legislature in its infinite wisdom even roped in underage alcohol use. Nowhere in the referendum presented to the voters was there any mention of changing the laws respecting juvenile behavior.
The state, with Governor Phil Murphy as lead cheerleader, has downgraded criminal offenses for underage use of marijuana and alcohol to a vaguely defined, toothless warning system in which the ones at greatest risk of criminal charges are the police.
We might as well have put billboard up at crossing points to New York and Pennsylvania inviting young people to a summer of booze and weed with no penalties attached.
New Jersey now has the most lenient laws in the nation regarding juvenile abuse of supposedly controlled substances like alcohol and weed in. No longer can police search juveniles for hidden booze. Officers cannot use the distinctive odor of marijuana as cause for a stop. Officers who violate the new rules can actually face criminal charges.
The warning system? Juveniles need not give their real names when questioned. A warning will be issued in the name the officer is given even if it is bogus and not supported by any form of ID. Following an initial uproar from the public, legislators did concede that juveniles who are given a warning should also be subject to parental notification, something they prohibited the first time around. The catch 22 is obvious. If the teen is not required to provide correct identification, how does parental notification work?
According to Avalon Police it may not work at all. In a list of frequently asked questions, the police had this to say. “Juveniles typically do not possess a legal form of identification and may not be cooperative, therefore it will be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain parents correct information.”
When Murphy was asked about the behavior being exhibited at the shore by crowds of rowdy juveniles, his answer was to ask people to “Please behave responsibly.” There was no discussion of the impact on public safety caused by recent changes to the way police must treat juvenile offenders. Asked a second time in the same press conference, Murphy skirted the issue again, saying “I think there are a lot of reasons why, and we'll continue to look at all of the elements.”
So here we are. The legislature has acted irresponsibly and the Governor is not willing to reconsider any of what the state has done to hamper the police trying to enforce laws about juvenile use of weed and alcohol - laws that still remain on the books however impossible they are to enforce.
What we are left with is a warning system that never escalates the consequences for repeated bad behavior. We have a parental notification requirement that works only when teens provide correct information. We have all of this in the name of a lofty goal of keeping juveniles out of the criminal justice system.
To achieve that goal we are apparently willing to teach our young people to disregard the law, to allow the consumption of dangerous substances by kids not yet old enough to understand the potential impact of their behavior, to excuse vandalism and destruction of property as good natured summer fun and to place police officers at the greatest risk of criminal charges for violating the civil rights of young people engaged in illegal behavior.
How did we get here? Where in the referendum was de facto legalization of weed use by underage individuals? Where in the referendum was mention of abuse of alcohol by juveniles? How do we justify a parental notification system that depends on teenage truthfulness when confronted by police?
We can all join with Pagliughi is calling on parents to become more involved maintaining public order. The Herald’s Spout Off is one measure of public sentiment on this issue. We looked hard to find a spouter who supported the state’s action. We failed. Spout Off is filled with expressions of concern and even outrage over the changes in juvenile laws.
One parent of a 15 year old who “now knows he can drink and smoke whatever he wants” asked “how responsible are they at the age.” Another argues that “freedom comes with responsibility, but also with common sense.”
We can look on with dismay at the response of the top executive of the state who feels it is sufficient to ask juveniles with open access to marijuana and alcohol to “act responsibly.”
We did not vote for this in November.
From the Bible: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. Proverbs 22:6