As Maryland largest and wealthiest subdivision (and often ranked among the richest in the country), Montgomery County is not usually in the business of seeking advice from its neighbors. That's not mere elitism but much collective expertise at work — a higher percentage of its residents hold post-graduate degrees than any other county in America.
As a result, Rockville is home to an activist county government with a fondness for innovation and progressive policymaking. So it comes as a bit of surprise to see the same folks who usually lecture Baltimore on matters of public policy take up a rather well-worn cause about which city residents are more than a little bit familiar: a curfew on teen-agers.
Next Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council is set to begin considering a controversial bill backed by County Executive Isiah Leggett that would ban children under age 18 from the streets after midnight on weekends and 11 p.m. on weekdays. Violators would be subject to a fine or forced to perform community service, as would their parents, who might also be required to take a parenting class.
Mr. Leggett, let's talk. Baltimore City has exactly such a curfew and has had it for decades. Indeed, across the country, most large cities began instituting similar curfews beginning in the 1970s to combat the same problem you are hoping to address — violent crimes committed late at night by minors who lack parental supervision.
Here's what we've discovered from so many years of practice: It's helpful but only modestly so. Don't expect crime rates to fall significantly as a result, but there are ways in which curfews can be made more effective — primarily to protect at-risk children.
Montgomery County's interest in curfews arose not from a rising crime rate (incidents of reported crime have actually fallen so far this year) but from some troubling incidents of teen crime and gang activity that received a lot of attention. The straw that broke the county's back was a late-night gathering of an estimated 70 teens in Silver Spring, which resulted in multiple fights and a stabbing of a teenage girl on the July 4th weekend.
The more liberal members of your council probably won't like the idea of a curfew, and for good reason. Done badly, a curfew can be a convenient device for police to harass and intimidate young people, usually minorities, as was the case with the anti-loitering laws of a generation ago.
Teens and their families are bound to resent it even with the slew of exemptions built into the proposal (teens are allowed out if accompanied by a parent, or with an adult under parent-approved circumstances, while running an errand, or in a motor vehicle, or on a job, because of an emergency, attending an official event, exercising First Amendment rights, or returning home).
What's required is not just a law but a commitment to using it correctly. Baltimore operates a curfew center on summer weekends where police bring violators. At the center, representatives from city schools and social service agencies can investigate an individual's circumstances and what can be done about them.
What they've discovered is that teens out late at night are not necessarily looking to commit acts of larceny. Often, they are from dysfunctional homes or are unsupervised because a single guardian works at night or because he or she is essentially homeless. Sometimes, the center is the safest place for a youngster to be.
Of the 1,040 teens who were seen at the center last year, just 31 were repeat visitors. That suggests that the referrals and outreach the city provides are making a difference.
Meanwhile, the other statistic that Montgomery County ought to note is that the average age of those who visited the center was just 141/2 . Many were under the age of 13. That's a problem that no mere curfew law is going to address.
Want to drive down teen crime? The curfew — along with a supportive center modeled after Baltimore's — may just help. But so would greater investment in summer jobs, recreation programs, drug and alcohol treatment for youngsters, anti-gang programs, and crisis intervention hotlines. Admittedly, passing a law is much cheaper.
The biggest mistake the county could make it to think that the curfew should be treated as a juvenile justice matter and throw more teens into that failed system. The goal should be to address the underlying issues that cause a 13-year-old to be on the street at 2 a.m., not merely to punish the youngster. As much as that might please the "law and order" crowd, it merely produces more hardened criminals and raises additional costs to society — a prospect that should keep fretful taxpayers up at night as well.