The best thing to come out of the scramble to write a new juvenile curfew law for Baltimore may be a greater investment in recreation centers. City officials have long acknowledged 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 gain all the benefits.
That could change with the search for alternatives to curfew laws that keep succumbing to judicial review. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has asked the finance and recreation departments to see if some of the city's $1 million emergency fund can be used to keep swimming pools and rec centers open longer, perhaps with adult volunteers staffing them. He said information he has received from other cities indicates "having extensive recreation programs has more of an impact on reducing crime in urban areas among our youth than having curfews."
Unfortunately, the mayor was not sufficiently moved by that data to reconsider the total allocation for city rec centers. Each only gets enough money from the city to pay utility bills and staff salaries. Centers in poorer areas are usually at a disadvantage because they can't charge enough to generate the funds for good programs. Mr. Schmoke said he is looking into the possibility of getting corporations to sponsor specific rec centers in the same manner they adopt schools. Certainly more has to be done to keep young people away from drugs and crime than to rely on whatever new curfew law the City Council writes.
The city first imposed a juvenile curfew nearly 12 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 does not stand up to constitutional scrutiny. That means the Baltimore curfew, identical to Frederick's, is also unlawful. The city has suspended enforcement of the curfew. But police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier says he would like to have the law back. He says a curfew is a useful tool for officers trying to deter juvenile crime.
The 1994 law has been used 1,100 times. It forced the city to build a juvenile detention facility, which it should have done long ago. But if city officials would find the funds to invest in recreational and other youth programs, they might discover Baltimore has less need for a curfew or a juvenile lock-up to keep its kids out of trouble.