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Curfew drop-off centers are too little too late [Commentary]

Mayor Rawlings-Blake's State of the City address last week called for the creation of curfew drop-off centers. This policy aims to lower delinquency and victimization among our city's youth, while getting at-risk youth needed services. These are goals worth achieving; however, curfew centers are not a proven solution to either issue.

First, youth delinquency primarily occurs after school and not during curfew hours. In Baltimore City, a curfew violation applies to youth under 17 years old who are either out during school hours or who are out past 11 p.m. on a weekday or 12 a.m. on a weekend. During the first half of 2013, more than half of the youth arrests in Baltimore took place after school and before the 11 p.m. curfew. Conversely, night time arrests of youth made up only 12 percent of total youth intake. Since curfew centers do not operate after school, when youth delinquency is most likely to occur, their efficacy is greatly impeded.

Second, curfew laws and enforcement assume that all youth are waiting for an opportunity to commit a delinquent act. This assumption is wrong. One study in Vernon, Conn. found that of 400 youth fined for curfew violations, only three were involved with the commission of a delinquent act while 99 percent were merely non-criminally up past their bedtime. This study is just one illustration of how curfew laws are perhaps well intended but ultimately misguided uses of local resources.

Third, curfew drop-off centers are often linked to an increase in unnecessary youth contact with the police. One report published by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention discussed a drop-off center in Orlando, Fla. One of the professionals interviewed said, "If you build it they will come. It's made it more convenient for the police to handle cases. So, yes, we have more [cases] now." This effect is called net-widening, and it is a common, unintended effect of programs like drop-off centers. We need to be cognizant that increased police contact with youth for minor or status offenses, which are only illegal because of the perpetrator's age, does not reduce crime. However, keeping youth busy in constructive activities and getting at-risk youth needed services does.

Baltimore City needs to reopen its closed recreation centers. Last year alone, 20 neighborhood recreation centers were closed in the city. Since youth are most likely to commit delinquent acts after school when they are most idle, we need to create positive environments for them to be social and active. The Department of Justice agrees that rec centers are the right kind of place for youth to channel their energy in a positive way.

Understandably, there are some youth in need of more assistance than a place to productively pass time after school. Drop-off centers fall short for this population because a youth has to be picked up for a curfew violation before he or she can access services. This step is an unnecessary hurdle to services.

Some jurisdictions like Albuquerque, N.M. have adopted reception centers. These small facilities exist to take in youth who have deeper problems than delinquency, such as homelessness, untreated mental illness or abuse issues. Albuquerque's reception center also has 16 beds for transient youth or youth with an unstable home situations. Youth who visit or are dropped off at these centers can get extra assistance without further involving the criminal justice system. The reception center in Albuquerque is seen as a proactive third option for law enforcement between taking a youth to juvenile intake or letting him or her off with a warning.

By investing in recreation centers we can provide alternatives to delinquency. By providing reception centers, Baltimore City would create access to services for our most vulnerable youth. These two proposals provide preventive and rehabilitative approaches to youth delinquency. Both of these models are proven and productive uses of limited resources. Curfew drop-off centers, on the other hand, provide simply too little, too late.

Jason Tashea is the juvenile justice policy director at Advocates for Children and Youth. His email is jtashea@acy.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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