Many Baltimoreans skeptical about curfew

June 18, 1994|By This story was reported and written by Sun staff writers Sandy Banisky, JoAnna Daemmrich, Melody Simmons, Norris West and Michael James

Can you keep children off Baltimore's streets at night by passing a law? The City Council, which tentatively approved a new curfew bill Thursday night, hopes so.

But many Baltimoreans were skeptical yesterday.

"It's too hot in the house," said Warren Spencer, 16, who lives near North Avenue and Pulaski Street.

"There ain't nothing to do in the house," added Keyon Robinson, 16, a high school dropout. "I usually stay out until 12 a.m. Everybody just starts coming out at 11 p.m."

Pamela A. Lee of Northwest Baltimore said that the law would not help parents to tighten the reins on their children -- because they can't.

"It will probably make them try to be more responsible," she said. "How successful they will be is anyone's guess. To put a parent in jail because they can't control their kids, that's not right. Teen-agers today can't be controlled by their parents."

The proposed curfew, up for final council approval Monday, is designed to help protect children from violence and gunfire in the streets. About 200 American cities have imposed curfews, including Miami, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Baltimore's measure is patterned after a curfew that recently went into effect in Dallas.

The U.S. Supreme Court, asked to review that law's constitutionality, declined to hear the case late last month, leaving the law in effect.

The new Baltimore curfew aims to keep youths under 17 off the streets after 11 p.m. during the week and after midnight on weekends -- with some exceptions, including youngsters going to and from work or those accompanied by a parent.

It would allow police officers to detain violators at night at "juvenile holding centers," to be set up in schools and recreation centers.

The curfew also would subject parents of violators to fines of $50 for the first offense and as much as $300 and/or 60 days in jail on a second offense.

In some cities, curfews have been criticized as violating children's constitutional right to free association and interfering with parents' rights. The Supreme Court has yet to hand down a definitive ruling on curfews.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, opposes curfew laws because they "replace parental control with state control, and that's not necessarily a good idea. It's saying the best parent for our kids is the state." Maryland's highest court, meanwhile, has not ruled on a Frederick curfew law.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke supports more stringent curfew restrictions, but could decide to wait for the Frederick ruling before enacting the ordinance, said his legislative liaison Peter Marudas.

"The mayor supports the legislation and supports the goals, but we have to make sure the law is enforceable." Mr. Marudas said yesterday.

A number of council members said yesterday they would try to persuade the mayor to enact the ordinance, which would take effect immediately if the council approves a final amendment Monday night.

The new measure is tougher than Baltimore's existing curfew, which has rarely been enforced.

"The penalty is the difference. That was lacking in the first one, and we also needed an appropriate juvenile holding facility," Council man Lawrence A. Bell III, a 4th District Democrat, said

"The parents are responsible right up front from day one," council President Mary Pat Clarke said. "They are liable for their children under the terms of the curfew and subjected to fines and to jail."

Ms. Clarke said she's not concerned that the Court of Appeals has not ruled on Frederick's curfew.

"I'm worried about Baltimore's children," she said. "Summer is starting. I think we need to enact this legislation and make this curfew stick. We'll worry about the lawyers later. I'd rather be sued than have a child killed."

Lt. Leander S. Nevin, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said he didn't have any problems with the new curfew law.

"I imagine it'll create a lot more paperwork," he said. "But this is a good idea. . . . Somebody's got to be responsible for these kids. It's just a shame it's got to be the government instead of their own families."

Around Baltimore, the proposed curfew was the topic of many discussions.

Teisha Robinson, 19, sat on the front steps of a rowhouse at Collington Street and Ashland Avenue and held a loud, heated debate with her neighbor Mary Harrington, 22.

"There are going to be a lot of parents out here kicking out a lot of money" in fines if the new curfew is approved, said Ms. Robinson, who has a 3-year-old son. "No child is going to go to bed that early."

But Ms. Harrington, whose children are 4 and 1, said the curfew would save lives and could help curb the crime that has plagued many African-American communities.

She said, "Look at all the children killed. . . . When a child's life be gone, his father will be standing at the funeral home crying, 'Why my son?' Well, why are children out on the street at night?"

But Ms. Harrington said she often allows her 4-year-old daughter to stay up late and sit with her on the front steps, often at midnight.

The heat inside her rowhouse forces them outside, she said.

Rita Miller, who lives in the 800 block of Collington St., said she would welcome a curfew.

"At night, this block is terrible," she said. "There are more teen-agers out than you can count on one hand and half of them got more money than their parents do because they are selling drugs."

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