Baltimore's new curfew — among the strictest in the country — takes effect Friday amid mixed reaction, with some parents saying it could help keep youths safe and experts noting that there's no evidence that it will.
Police will begin taking children out too late without supervision to one of two curfew centers, where they will be evaluated and their families connected to services.
"The primary goal of all of this is to make sure young people who may be in challenging situations late at night are able to get home safely," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "This isn't a jail. This is a safe, youth-friendly environment, potentially a lot safer than where they might otherwise be late at night, like in front of a liquor store."
The new curfew, which updates a law on the books for 20 years, requires children younger than 14 to be indoors by 9 p.m. Those 14, 15 and 16 can stay out until 10 p.m. on school nights and 11 p.m. on weekends and over the summer.
The city is launching the new curfew as one family prepares to bury their daughter Friday after she was killed by gunfire in the city's Waverly neighborhood. The curfew wouldn't have protected 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott, who was struck by a stay bullet Friday afternoon on a porch, but some parents say the new law can only help.
Anthony McNutt, father of a 17-year-old daughter, likes the idea of a curfew to ensure that young people are inside at a reasonable hour and to hold neglectful parents accountable.
"It has potential to save lives," said McNutt, who lives in Park Heights.
McNutt worries, though, that the curfew could prove to be a challenge for single parents who work more than one job and cannot leave to pick up their children at a curfew center. "I want to know what's in place for those parents who aren't neglecting their kids," he said.
Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say the law will bring more young people into the criminal justice system. Enforcement of the curfew could disproportionately impact minorities, some warn.
Acting Capt. Eric Kowalczyk, a Baltimore police spokesman, said the department will be distributing training materials to officers about the new curfew, resources available to young people and their families, and a reminder on police policies.
"We've been enforcing the curfew for 20 years, so as far as the enforcement angle, nothing is changing from our perspective other than the new hours and new resources," Kowalczyk said. "This is about making sure we are identifying kids in at-risk situations and connecting them to city services."
If an officer sees a child out past the curfew, the officer could take the child home. If the situation at the home seems unsafe, the officer would take the child in a vehicle, likely a Police Athletic League car, without handcuffs, to one of two curfew centers.
The centers — at the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center in Sandtown-Winchester and the Collington Square Recreation Center in the Broadway East neighborhood — will each be staffed with at least eight people, including police officers and social workers. The centers will be open only on Friday and Saturday nights to start, but the city wants to eventually open nine centers that will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The staff will evaluate the children and decide whether it is safe for them to return home, officials said.
Children who have been abused or neglected could end up in foster care, but city officials said such situations are expected to be rare. In most situations in which the child's home life is in question, the city will involve the Department of Social Services to develop an intervention plan.
The children will not face criminal charges, but their parents could be fined $30 to $500, which would be waived if they participate in city-funded counseling.
Baltimore's new curfew is stricter than the curfew in Washington, where children younger than 17 must be indoors by 11 p.m. on school nights and midnight on weekend and summer nights.
The curfews in Philadelphia and Chicago are tougher for younger children, but roughly the same for older kids. In Philadelphia, those 13 and younger have to be inside at 8 p.m. during the school year and at 9 p.m. during the summer. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds can stay out until 9 on school nights and 10 p.m. in the summer, and 16- and 17-year-olds can stay out until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., depending on the time of year.
New York and Boston do not have curfews. Locally, Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties do not have curfews.
Researchers say there is no evidence to suggest that curfews reduce crime or keep children safe. For instance, a study of crime statistics from 1980 to 1996 in California cities with youth curfews found no correlation between curfews and crime by or against juveniles.
Jeffrey A. Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the argument that a curfew is necessary to protect children is "convenient" but not rooted in fact. Governments have child welfare laws for safety, he said, and officers can intervene when necessary without needing a curfew law to step in.
Butts said Baltimore's law is not only strict, but confusing because of the way it changes based on a child's age and the time of year.
"It's more coverage than I have seen most cities do," Butts said. "It sounds not only comprehensive but complicated, which means kids will lose track of it."
Officials with the ACLU of Maryland said they were troubled by questions about how the curfew will be enforced, such as what happens to young people without identification and how police will respond to youths who flee. The organization has asked the city to show the written guidance that officers are getting for enforcing the curfew and also wants information about steps taken to ensure that curfew stops do not escalate into arrests or occasions for police to use force.
"Cops are not social workers, and attempts to turn them into youth counselors just don't work," said Garland Nixon, an ACLU board member and retired police officer.
Harris said police have been instructed not to chase children who attempt to flee after a curfew stop. If a child does not have an ID, the officer will ask questions to determine his or her age. If police suspect the child is a minor, the officer will take him or her to a curfew center where school officials can check records, according to city officials.
"The Police Department has been doing this for two decades, and largely without any of the extreme incidents that a lot of people have raised with regard to negative interaction with the department," Harris said.
Kyle Baylor, 18, of McElderry Park is conflicted about the curfew.
Like many Baltimore residents, he believes it is a good idea to keep children out of harm's way at night. But it wouldn't be necessary, he said, if the city focused more resources on its recreation centers and after-school and summer activities for kids.
"Provide them with jobs and other things to do, and they won't be out all night," Baylor said.
When he was growing up, he and his friends spent lots of time at an East Baltimore recreation center run by the Police Athletic League. For children without stable situations at home, Baylor said, the centers offered a wholesome place to hang out, do homework and spend time with friends and role models.
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