City Curfew: Late Again

July 14, 1995

Is it asking too much to want a city government that can figure out solutions to problems before they become acute?

All too often the mayor and City Council look as though they never heard of the adage about an ounce of prevention being worth more than a pound of cure. Just look at all the scrambling over a new curfew law for young people.

The city first imposed such a curfew nearly 12 years years ago to keep unsupervised minors off the street after 11 p.m. But in November 1993 a 10-year-old, Tauris Johnson, was shot and killed while tossing a football outside around 6 p.m. That spurred passage of a tougher curfew pushed by the council's African-American coalition. City Solicitor Neal M. Janey recommended waiting until the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled on the constitutionality of a juvenile curfew law in Frederick, but the council wouldn't listen. Baltimore's tougher curfew went into effect July 28, 1994.

Now the appeals court has ruled that the Frederick curfew doesn't stand up to constitutional scrutiny. That means the Baltimore curfew, which is identical to Frederick's, is also unlawful. The city has suspended enforcement of the curfew. But some council members, citing the epidemic of violent juvenile crime, are trying to write a new law in a hurry. Proponents say they can pattern the bill after a Dallas law the Supreme Court let stand. But there is no guarantee such revisions will prevent it from flunking the state court's test.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier says a curfew is a useful tool for officers trying to disperse groups of young people. He said the 1994 law has been used 1,100 times. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who reluctantly signed that law, now says he will sign a new measure if it is constitutional. That may not be possible. In the meantime, the mayor is proceeding with some steps to keep young people off the streets at night that are laudable but late.

He has asked the Finance Department and the recreation department to see if some of the city's $1 million emergency fund can be used to keep swimming pools and rec centers open later, perhaps with adult volunteers staffing them. That's a great idea. But it shouldn't have taken this debate about curfews for it to surface. City officials keep acknowledging the importance of youth recreation programs in keeping young people away from drugs and crime. But they invest too little in city rec centers to reap all the benefits. They must prefer buying those cures by the pound.

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