Curbing rowdy drinkers

Our view: Higher fines for public drunkenness may not make much of a dent in Baltimore’s budget problems, but they can help strike a balance between a lively nightlife and livable neighborhoods

April 20, 2010

Baltimore took an important step to increase the city's vibrancy last year when it expanded the ability of bars and restaurants to offer live entertainment. But left somewhat unresolved were the more unsavory aspects of the nightlife we do have. After all, "vibrant city" and "drunken people vomiting in flowerpots" don't really go together.

That's why City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young's attention to the issue of nuisance crimes in some of Baltimore's bar-hoppingest neighborhoods is so important. One of the great attractions for people to choose the city instead of the suburbs is the possibility of living a short walk from bars, restaurants and live music venues, but it wouldn't take too many instances of drunks getting in fights on your sidewalk at 2 a.m. or treating your alley as an open-air outhouse for that charm to wear off.

Those who don't live in Fells Point, Federal Hill or other trendy neighborhoods — or who don't frequent their bars around last call — may wonder what the big deal is. But the problem isn't just a few college kids or an occasional disturbance; disorderly conduct is a regular feature on the streets in some areas. Mr. Young led a late-night tour of Federal Hill this weekend with Sun reporters Julie Scharper and Justin Fenton, and the video Mr. Fenton shot (baltimoresun.com/youngvideo) is particularly eye-opening. Hordes of young people can be seen milling around in the street outside the bars near Cross Street Market, stumbling on the sidewalks and accosting the policemen sent there to keep the peace. Unseen in the video are houses just around the corner in any direction from where the revelers loiter, houses where people were presumably trying in vain to sleep.

Mr. Young is pushing legislation that would increase fines for public drunkenness, violations of open container laws, and public urination and defecation, among other nuisances. He has pitched the legislation in part as a way to raise revenue for the cash-strapped city, but that's not really the point. The fines he's talking about — as much as $1,000 for disorderly drinking — are large enough that they probably won't get levied all that often. The current penalties, as little as $50, might be considered part of the cost of going out; a $1,000 fine should be enough to make even the most dedicated partiers sober up.

The two chief objections being raised to this idea are that the city should be focusing instead on more serious crimes in Baltimore's nontrendy neighborhoods or that the council president is just trying to find ways to take more money out of the pockets of the city's more affluent residents. Indeed, Baltimore has many other problems besides rowdies outside of bars, but that doesn't mean we can simply ignore major quality of life issues in places like Canton or Mount Vernon. The city wouldn't thrive for long if we let them degenerate. Furthermore, the legislation enables police to write meaningful civil citations for these offenses, which saves much of the time and effort they now have to spend to arrest and book the most disorderly bar-goers.

As for the idea that this proposal is a money grab, it would probably generate a lot more money for the city if it called for writing $75 or $100 tickets; that would be enough to perk up the city coffers but not enough to change behavior. The fines Mr. Young is proposing are high, but they're not completely out of line with Washington and Philadelphia, which have maximum fines for similar offenses of $500 and $300, respectively. The council should carefully consider the details of Mr. Young's proposal to make sure each of the offenses he's targeting — which also include ticket scalping and selling loose cigarettes — merits the fine he proposes. But the general idea is a good one.

The suggestion by some skeptics of this legislation that the city should be focusing on the bars that serve the liquor that fuels these disturbances is well taken. Bar owners say they do train their staffs to avoid serving people who are excessively intoxicated, but that it can be difficult to monitor how much people are drinking as they hop from bar to bar or buy rounds of shots for friends. And it's notable that they have so far been supportive of the idea of increased fines, even though it might mean less business for them.

The problem Mr. Young is attacking is a cultural one. A certain segment of 20-somethings seems to have adopted the attitude that the neighborhoods they party in belong to them, and that the police sent to maintain order are a joke. A few $1,000 fines may be the fastest way to change that.

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