Not time for a curfew

June 28, 1994

Keeping young people off the streets late at night is an appealing idea. Making it a crime may not be such a good idea.

Adolescents ought to be home by 11 p.m. in most cases, anyway. Certainly they shouldn't be on the streets in the early morning hours. There's not much more than mischief or worse available for them that late. There's also less chance of stopping a poorly aimed bullet. So why not have a curfew for youngsters under 17 years old?

The U.S. Supreme Court appears to have set aside the constitutional objections that have been raised, at least to tightly drawn laws such as the one passed by the Baltimore City Council. Although it has said so only indirectly, the court is permitting localities to limit a juvenile's individual rights in their efforts to control street crimes. Under the Baltimore law awaiting Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's promised signature, youngsters with valid reasons are allowed on the streets after curfew. If they don't have good cause, they can be taken to a special center and their parents fined.

If it were that simple, the curfew might be worth trying. In some cities, crimes associated with juveniles, like car thefts, have dropped noticeably after curfews were imposed. But juvenile curfews have been around in one form or another for a century. Baltimore has had a less stringent one for almost 20 years. According to a study by the National League of Cities, there is little evidence they work. And the study warns that what works in one city may not in another. Conditions vary.

Lost in the emotionalism over street crime is a serious discussion of the curfew's drain on police resources. For all the curfew's value in getting kids off the streets late at night or in giving police a means of stopping and questioning them without other probable cause, enhanced enforcement would take officers off the streets. Detaining a juvenile could take an hour or more of an officer's time. Just verifying a reason for being out late could take as long.

And where would the juveniles be taken? Curfew supporters talk vaguely about setting up special reception centers in schools and recreation centers. Where is the money and staffing coming from? Not the police, if Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier has anything to say about it. He has enough personnel problems and can surely find better uses for the money. Has anyone in City Hall calculated the cost of keeping schools and rec centers open overnight and weekends?

Doubts that a curfew would make much difference, and doubts as to whether the practical results would be worth the police effort, ought to give Mayor Schmoke pause before plunging ahead.

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