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Curfews, like speed limits, only selectively enforced

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THOSE WHO travel the interstates into Baltimore may have noticed how much more serious the traffic police have become about ticketing speeders.

The directive from Annapolis must be that since the speed limit on rural interstates has been raised to 65 miles an hour, then state troopers had better keep a closer eye on those traveling in the 55 mph zones.

State police issued more than 4,700 speeding citations during the Independence Day holiday weekend -- 3,901 for exceeding 55 mph and 828 tickets to motorists who violated the new 65 mph limit.

You would think the troopers would be more aggressive in the faster zones. After all, everybody knows posted speed limits are a warning to the timid among motorists to expect everyone else to be driving at least 10 mph faster than the signs dictate.

I could drive faster than the speed limit, but it amuses me to see how annoyed some people get at a driver who doesn't have the decency to also be in a hurry.

Of course, I come from Alabama, where state troopers take a more, well, laissez faire approach to monitoring highway traffic. I know, that's not what you saw in all those "Smokey and the Bandit"-type movies, where big-bellied Southern cops got their jollies chasing speeders. But believe me, Jackie Gleason was never a state trooper.

Truth is, several Southern states are so cash poor that their public safety departments can't afford to put enough troopers on the highways to make sure people stick to the posted speed limits.

Plenty of stock car drivers believe racing on the Talladega Speedway is safer than being on Interstate 65 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa when people are rushing to see the Crimson Tide play football.

But speeding limits are not the only laws that are selectively enforced. You can go to virtually any town in America and find ordinances on the books that police simply ignore or only choose to enforce when it suits their purposes.

Take that curfew law here in Baltimore. The city suspended that ordinance because it may be unconstitutional. It's nearly identical to a Frederick curfew law that was recently struck down by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Before Baltimore's curfew was suspended, police used it to detain more than 1,100 juveniles during the past 12 months. That's right, 1,100 kids in a year. There are at least that many children on the streets after midnight every night.

But no one really expects the police to be out there corraling every 12-year-old they see outdoors after midnight.

Just filling out the paperwork would keep cops from ever getting around to chasing the real criminals, you know, the ones who don't need anyone's permission to stay out as late as they want.

So, while a government-imposed curfew is a factor, it's not really the issue in trying to reduce the number of young people who are committing crimes or becoming crime victims. A curfew is just another one of those laws that the police selectively enforce in certain situations -- such as breaking up a crowd of noisy teen-agers.

The main issue is adult supervision -- getting mothers, or fathers, or guardians, or somebody to set household rules (such as a curfew) and making sure the rules are followed.

But you can't really legislate proper parental behavior. Some people are good at it, some aren't. And that goes across the board of races, creeds and economic status.

Also an issue -- in these times when government often out of necessity must fill the parental void in order to "insure domestic tranquillity" and "promote the general welfare" -- is the question of what more should cities do to keep kids off the streets.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has part of the answer. He is extending the hours of public swimming pools and recreation centers, giving young people another alternative to being either in the streets or cooped up in an oven-hot house on a humid summer night.

But the mayor needs to go further than that. Don't just expand the hours, provide more programs. Good youth recreation programs can have a tremendous impact not only on juvenile crime but also on public education. Positive recreational activities usually generate positive attitudes that children will take to school.

Mr. Schmoke should know that. He should also know that this year's $100,000 increase in the budget for the city's 69 recreation centers was not enough. With their $7.1 million total budget, most of the centers can only pay their utility bills and staff salaries. They can't offer innovative recreational programs without raising extra money and they can't raise much in neighborhoods that have very little to give.

Every year the city invests a ton of money in economic development projects that it believes will provide greater returns. There should be no more important project than the production of generations of young people who grow up to become good citizens who are able to give back to the city. Not enough is being invested in Baltimore's kids.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Evening Sun.

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