The idea of a curfew seems to imply an emergency these days: a state of siege, a natural disaster, criminal rampage. But it wasn't too long ago in America that a curfew simply meant putting the law behind that familiar question to parents: "It's midnight. Do you know where your children are?"
That's the context in which Westminster officials are trying to develop a policy to keep their city's youngsters off the streets late at night. Their primary concern is the welfare of these children, while helping to curb the kind of mischief, petty crime and vandalism that can result from juveniles left unattended at dark. It's the kind of concern that most of us would appreciate, regardless of our differing philosophies of civil liberties.
Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown wants a midnight curfew for children under 16 years of age, with police picking up violators and taking them home. Authorities would decide whether to refer the parents or child to social or juvenile services agencies.
Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein would involve parents and police in a cooperative curfew enforcement program. Children under 17 wouldhave a nominal midnight curfew, and violators would be taken home by police. But parents who registered for the program would be called and could give permission for the child to be released.
Between those two proposals, which have yet to be introduced as legislation, Westminster should be able to come up with a workable program that would get children home at night with the cooperation (willing or not) of their families. Parents and guardians who don't accept their responsibilities should have to deal with the appropriate social services agencies, and face fines for habitual offense.
Police should not ignore other duties to run down curfew violators. If there is no enforcement, however, there is no point in having a curfew.
Legal challenges to curfews across the country have had mixed results. Maryland's second highest court has ruled that localities do not have constitutional power to set curfews. Those legal objections will have to be closely examined in drafting a curfew for Westminster. Curfews are tough to carry out, particularly in large cities such as Baltimore, but they can be effective in other, smaller locales where there is strong public support.