Out all night

Baltimore officials are considering a proposal by City Councilman Brandon M. Scott to set an earlier curfew to keep unsupervised young people from hanging out in the streets until all hours of the night. It's an idea that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts have all embraced for one simple reason: Requiring kids to be indoors by a certain hour is one of the best ways to keep them safe after dark. And as an added bonus, it may even lead to some modest reductions in juvenile crime.

For decades, Baltimore has had some kind of curfew restricting the hours unsupervised minors can be on the streets. Currently, the law allows children and teenagers under 17 to stay out until 11 p.m. on weeknights and until midnight on weekends. Councilman Scott says that may be OK for some older teens, but why on earth would any parent or guardian want their 7- or 8-year-old out wandering the streets alone after dark? That's just asking for trouble.

Instead, Mr. Scott, who formerly worked in the city's summer curfew center, wants to set a graduated deadline for youngsters to be indoors. Under his plan, kids under 14 would have to be at home by 9 p.m., every night, while youths ages 14, 15 and 16 could stay out until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. No doubt many kids — and some parents — will still think that's too early. But experience shows that enough bad things happen as the evening wears on that it's altogether reasonable to require children to be safely at home when the wee hours approach.

That said, critics have raised important questions about such a policy. Civil liberties advocates worry about the potential for selective enforcement based on race or class, and the head of the city's police union says he worries about officers spending time enforcing curfew laws that might better be spent focusing on more serious offenses. Those concerns are valid. To be worthwhile, a curfew has to do more than clear kids off the streets; it needs to be a gateway to addressing the problems that put them outside at inappropriate hours in the first place.

During the summer months, the city operates a juvenile curfew center housed in the school department headquarters on North Avenue. Police who catch youngsters on the streets after the deadline take them there, where workers call their parents and ask them to come pick their children up. The curfew center also offers counseling and other services for parents who are having trouble keeping up with their youngsters, as well as services for neglected or homeless youth. In most cases, kids who are on the streets after curfew aren't there because they're up to no good — juvenile crime generally peaks during the daylight hours after school lets out — but because they have no other place to go, especially if they come from violent or abusive homes.

The curfew center saw about 500 youngsters come through its doors last summer, but it's closed the rest of the year. When school is in session, police who pick kids up after hours have nowhere else to take them except home. That's not always the most efficient use of an officer's time, and the evidence is mixed on whether it helps deter youth crime after dark. It can also put kids right back into the same troubled home situations they were trying to escape by staying out late.

A better alternative would be to bring youth who break the curfew to one or more year-round facilities like the one at the summer curfew center, where officials can address the problems they are experiencing. The vast majority of kids brought to the summer facility in recent years never return for a second or third violation. That suggests the counseling and other services they receive there really do make a difference.

Councilman Scott says he eventually wants to identify funding sources that will allow the city to operate the summer curfew center year-round. That should be a top priority for the mayor, the City Council president and the police chief as well. If kids are staying out at ungodly hours, it's often a sign something is wrong at home. Setting an earlier curfew would help keep them safer but only if its accompanied by services to help children and their families resolve the problems that are keeping them out all night.

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