City Councilman Brandon Scott had the right idea this week when he said the bill he is sponsoring to toughen up the city's curfew law to require children under 14 to be indoors year-round by 9 p.m. is not about arresting kids or cutting crime rates. It's about keeping the city's young people safe, and that can't happen if they are allowed to wander the streets late at night.
It's really the parents' responsibility to make sure their children are where they're supposed to be at all times, especially after dark. But when parents don't do their job the city needs to step in, if only to protect vulnerable youngsters from getting into situations where they could suffer serious harm.
Baltimore has had some form of youth curfew for years; currently the law allows youngsters under the age of 17 to stay out until 11 p.m. on weekends and until midnight on weekends. But Councilman Scott argues that's still too late for many younger teens and pre-teens, who may lack the experience and judgment to avoid risky choices and behaviors that put them in jeopardy.
Civil liberties advocates have criticized the proposed tightening of the curfew law on the grounds that it could result in more young people becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system. Meanwhile, the city's police union worries that officers will have to take on additional responsibilities for rounding up curfew violators, leaving them less time to pursue more serious crimes. Such concerns have been raised before, but there's little evidence to support either claim; since the current curfew law was enacted there's been no noticeable spike in juvenile arrests nor has there been a more general rise in crime that would bear out those dire predictions.
On the contrary, experience has shown that the law has merely facilitated authorities' efforts to engage the parents of youth who break curfew in less formal environment than a courtroom setting and to offer them services to correct whatever problems led to their kids being out late. Most children found on the street after curfew are not plotting to commit a crime; the more likely reason for their presence outdoors is that they are fleeing unstable, neglectful or abusive home environments or are from families that are experiencing homelessness.
Picking such children up and identifying them to social workers is the first line of defense against allowing them to develop even more serious problems, and it is an opportunity to help parents set reasonable limits on their comings and goings. Of the 500 or so youngsters brought to the city's curfew center last summer, only a few dozen were returned there for subsequent curfew violations, which suggests the center's counseling and other services were having the desired effect.
Nor is the main benefit of a curfew a reduction in youth crime. That's because most juvenile offenses occur during the daylight hours just after school lets out. If kids are going to get into trouble, that's usually when the risk of their doing so is greatest, and police already are accustomed to dealing with such incidents regardless of the age of the perpetrators.
Councilman Scott's legislation by itself won't solve the problem of youngsters being on the street way past the time they should be indoors, but coupled with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's pledge to also expand the current summer city curfew center by creating two year-round facilities where parents can pick up their children and receive counseling, it should strengthen the city's ability to better protect vulnerable young people from harm.
Ideally, we'd like to see a long-term study of the law's effect on parental responsibility, one that perhaps also gauges improvements in kids' home environments as a result of the curfew. But until that happens the city should continue to build on the efforts it has already made to keep its children safe. Getting them off the streets late at night is surely a good place to start.
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