A tough new curfew forcing kids off the streets as early as 9 p.m. was approved Monday by the Baltimore City Council over objections it will place too much stress on the Police Department and lead to conflicts between youths and officers.
The legislation requires one more vote for final passage, which is expected next month. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she'll sign it into law.
The bill's sponsor, Councilman Brandon Scott, said it is intended to keep small children from wandering the street, becoming victims of crime or suffering from neglect.
"We have to do something," Scott said. "Young children are out there. ... This bill is not about arresting kids. This bill is not about dropping crime. It's about connecting young people and their families with the services they need."
The legislation, approved 11-2, 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 increases penalties to $500, though they could be waived if parents and children attend counseling sessions provided by the city.
"We all know that when children are on the streets late at night without proper supervision, they are more likely to either become the perpetrators or the victims of violent crime," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "I believe this legislation will be another much needed tool to help reduce the number of juveniles on the streets at night, while furthering a commitment my administration has made to provide more services for young people we know are vulnerable."
The bill was opposed the American Civil Liberties Union and criticized by the head of the city's police union. City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Warren Branch voted against it.
Branch, the chair of the council's public safety committee, said he worried the legislation would force yet another responsibility on police.
"There should be more agencies involved instead of putting the stress and pressure on our Police Department," he said.
Sonia Kumar, an attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, sent a letter to council members expressing concern about the "constitutionality and policy implications" of the curfew.
"The bill is a very significant expansion of Baltimore's curfew laws," she said. "Whatever the intention of the bill, there's no evidence that the bill will accomplish those goals. There are really significant reasons for not entangling young people and their families in the criminal justice system."
Kumar said she saw difficulties in enforcing the legislation fairly without police stopping kids and demanding they produce an ID card.
"The breadth of what is proposed is deeply troubling and a poor use of city resources," she said.
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.
"We continue to invest in programs such as basketball leagues, jobs programs and rec center improvements that provide constructive alternatives for our young people," she said. "We need an all-hands-on-deck approach."
The legislation continues current exemptions from the curfew, including a provision for 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 eliminates an exception that has permitted young people to run errands for their parents.
Scott said those opposed to the bill have an outdated view of the curfew center.
"I understand their concerns," Scott said. "I just disagree. We don't arrest the kids. They don't put them in handcuffs. We don't take them to Central Booking. We take them to the curfew center."
He acknowledged that in the past, the center was "simply a glorified holding cell."
"We're going to change the culture of the curfew," Scott said. "It's not just picking the kids up and locking them in a room."
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has endorsed tightening the curfew law, but Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, has said curfew enforcement should not be a priority of police officers but should be parents' responsibility.
Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties don't have youth curfew laws.
The bill also institutes a daytime curfew of 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., adding an exception for youths traveling to or from school.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she hopes the bill will force young people to get to school earlier to eat a healthy breakfast instead of junk food from stores.
"This is to protect children," she said of the bill.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the success of the legislation will depend upon how well city police enforce it. He said the current less-restrictive curfew "hasn't been enforced."
"I'm hoping the enforcement piece will kick in and we'll be able to save a lot of our young people," he said.
The bill would become law 30 days after being signed by the mayor.