Be home by curfew [Editorial]

Our view: New city law requiring young people to be indoors earlier at night needs more evaluation but shows promise

September 11, 2014

City officials report that Baltimore police picked up fewer children than expected on the streets late at night after the city's new curfew law went into effect last month. Supporters of the tougher curfew say that suggests parents and children have gotten the message that young people need to be indoors at night. But others question whether it's simply a result of police not enforcing the law. While it may be too soon to judge how well the curfew is being enforced, ultimately the success of the new law will depend on families getting the counseling and other services they need to address the problems that led to their kids being out late in the first place.

The new curfew requires children under 14 to be indoors by 9 p.m. Youngsters ages 14, 15 and 16 can stay out until 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends. During the last 30 days police picked up 120 youths for violating the curfew and took 97 of them home. The other 23 were brought to one of the city's two curfew centers, where workers called their parents to ask them to pick up their children. Parents who received citations could have the fines waived if they participated in a family support workshop.

On the evidence of one month's results, it's at least apparent that the worst predictions of curfew opponents have failed to materialize. The city hasn't been swamped by a wave of youth arrests or complaints of police harassing young people in poor communities. Nor have officers been so distracted by curfew violations that they've been unable to attend to more serious offenses; there's no evidence of a spike in violent crime since the law went into effect. And even those who were initially skeptical of the program acknowledge the department has been transparent in releasing data on its enforcement efforts.

That's all to the good so far, and it points to the basic wisdom underlying the stricter curfew law: Young people are far less likely to get into trouble — of their own making or as victims of crime — if they're indoors after dark and not out prowling the streets until all hours. Most parents know this instinctively and act accordingly to make sure their kids are safely at home by a certain hour.

Ironically, most children know it as well — almost all the young people police pick up for curfew violations probably would rather not be on the streets at night either. They're usually there either because they have no home to go back to or because the situation there is even worse than what they might find on the streets after dark. Kids from neglectful or abusive homes are the ones police are mostly likely to encounter violating the curfew, but that doesn't make them criminals, and the city ought to do what it can to help them and their families straighten out whatever situation has made the streets seem like a safer alternative to being home at night.

That's where the curfew center's social workers and service providers come in. Their job is to find out what is happening in the lives of these young people and their families and then connect them with programs that can help them resolve their difficulties. The help offered can range from mentoring or counseling sessions to sports and academic programs, including free school supplies, uniforms and notebooks.

Most of the children brought the center come from a handful of the city's most distressed neighborhoods, and it's important for officials to recognize that in most cases they are far more likely to be victims of crimes than to commit crimes themselves. Whether the curfew law has some small effect on reducing crime — most juvenile offenses take place during the day after school lets out — its main purpose is to keep kids safe, and that's the basis on which its effectiveness should be evaluated.

It make take several more years to fully understand how well the police department's enforcement effort is working. But judging from the fact that families already appear to be heeding the law's mandate that children be indoors earlier in the evening, the results so far are encouraging.

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