The American Civil Liberties Union and some advocacy groups urged the City Council on Thursday to scrap a tough youth curfew bill and instead implement a plan that calls for more social programs for young people.
But Councilman Brandon Scott, lead sponsor of the curfew bill, said the critics misunderstand the legislation and waited too long to get involved. "If they were so concerned about this, why haven't they made these suggestions before?" he asked.
Scott said he expects the council to give final approval to the bill Monday. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she will sign it into law.
The legislation would require youths to be off the streets as early as 9 p.m. Those out too late could be taken by police to a curfew center, where a parent or guardian would be contacted to pick them up. If a custodian could not be found or officials decide it's not safe for the child to go home, the youth could be placed in the care of a social service agency.
The advocacy groups' alternative proposal calls on the city to disassociate curfew centers from the Police Department and provide more youth programs. They say the new early curfew will lead to conflicts between youths and police as officers round up children and teens.
"Forcing all Baltimore youth indoors under an expanded set of curfew laws has little to do with making sure that the city is working with communities, families and youth to improve services and programs for youth," said Sonia Kumar, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "The 'one-size-fits-all' approach of expanding the youth curfew is not an effective way to identify youth in need, reduce delinquency, or connect youth to services."
Scott said he believes the legislation will keep small children from wandering the street, becoming victims of crime or suffering from neglect.
Rawlings-Blake said she plans to sign whatever version of the bill comes to her desk.
"There's nothing in the curfew bill about criminalization," she said. "This is about making sure that when our young people are crying out for help that we're there. When we have kids at risk, to me it's not the time to have useless debates. We need to look for solutions."
Rawlings-Blake has announced plans to expand the city's curfew center to become two year-round Youth Connection Centers for kids and teens who violate the curfew. She has said once teens visit the current center, their families are connected with city services, and "we have very, very few return visits."
The legislation calls for youngsters under 14 to be indoors year-round by 9 p.m. Youths ages 14 through 16 could stay out until 10 on school nights and 11 on other nights.
Currently, all children and teens younger than 17 can stay out until 11 on weeknights and until midnight on weekends. Parents can be fined up to $300 if their children are caught outside after curfew.
The legislation would increase penalties to $500, though they could be waived if parents and children attend counseling sessions provided by the city.
The alternative plan was developed by the ACLU of Maryland, the Homeless Persons Representation Project, Youth Empowered Society, and Advocates for Children and Youth.
It calls on the mayor to "revise the plan for 'youth connection centers' so they are youth-friendly, not associated with law enforcement or curfew violations, and have explicit, intentional policies to avoid unintentionally criminalizing youth." It also asks the city to "increase the availability of safe activities to engage youth" and "work with city schools and youth experts" to provide more family support services and job programs for youth, among other requests.
Ingrid Lofgren, an attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said the tougher curfew law would hurt homeless youth. And she said the measure would have unintended consequences, including creating more friction between young people and police.
But Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who supports the measure, said he sees the curfew as a mechanism to identify families and children in need of help, rather than as an enforcement tool to pick kids up "when the clock strikes a certain time." Once the children and teens are brought to the centers, officials can begin the work of stabilizing their families and connecting them with social services, he said.
"If it's 3 a.m., and there is a child who is 12 years old, 2 years old, on the street, that's an alarm that that family is in trouble," Batts told the City Council at a budget hearing this week. "If they're out at 1 or 2 in the morning, you know they're not going to school, and school is their greatest hope. We don't want our babies out there being molested or harmed."
The legislation would continue current exemptions from the curfew, including a provision allowing youths to be out late if they're with a parent, or going to or from a job, religious event, or school or recreational activity. The legislation would eliminate an exception that has permitted young people to run errands for their parents.
The bill also would institute a daytime curfew of 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., adding an exception for youths traveling to or from school.
City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Warren Branch voted against the bill when it won preliminary council approval, 11-2. Branch, chair of the council's public safety committee, has said he worries the legislation would force yet another responsibility on police.
The bill would become law 30 days after being signed by the mayor.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
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