Baltimore Curfew is a Band-Aid for Serious Societal Issues

Seth Okin Discusses if the Baltimore Curfew will work

Written a by Seth Okin Attorney at Law Staff Writer

Aug. 11, 2014

A new curfew law has taken effect in Baltimore, making it one of the harshest curfew regulations in the country.

Under the old city ordinance, children 17 and younger could be outside, on the street, until midnight without fear of reprimand. As of last Friday, however, a new law has taken effect and it requires all children under the age of 14 to be indoors by 9 p.m. Any child age 14 to 16 must be inside by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends and summer nights. Children who are found out on the street past curfew can be detained by police and taken to one of two recreational centers set up as processing centers by the city to hold the kids until a parent or guardian picks them up. Additionally, parents face up to $500 in fines.

Those in favor of the new curfew law cite Baltimore’s extremely high crime rates, particularly violent crime, as the impetus for the new curfew regulations. The deaths of nine youths last year pushed many, including the city’s mayor, to act.
The new law, however, has drawn the ire of many who question the efficacy of such programs. The ACLU of Maryland insists the new rules are too vague and the process will inevitably lead to negative interactions between police and youths, according to one Reuters report. One ACLU staff attorney said there is serious concern about how police officers will react if they stop a youth who is not carrying photo identification or if the child panics and runs away. Many worry that the new curfew law will only add to the “stop and frisk” program that has plagued Baltimore and many other police departments.

Many parents have noted the $500 fine could sink their family’s already struggling finances.  More than a few community activists have pointed out that the recreation centers being used to hold the kids at night lack adequate funding to operate during the day. The message seems to be that Baltimore puts a higher premium on rounding up children at night, and fining families, than it does on providing badly needed after school and summer youth programs.

As a full service criminal defense firm, we can say with some authority that penalizing families with exorbitant fines and locking up kids will probably prove about as successful as our currently overloaded prison system. Obviously children need to be inside and in a safe environment, particularly late at night. We can probably all agree that parents, in a perfect world, will always know where their child is and would never allow a child or teen to run wild in the streets at all hours. The reality, however, is that many families that struggle to survive require the help of older children. These teens might have jobs or they may be tasked with caring for younger siblings while parents work night shifts. Even in the far more rare cases where a child is openly defying their parents by sneaking out or staying out late, threats of detention and fines that can equal half the family’s monthly rent or more than a month’s worth of groceries will do more harm than good.

Given the number of youths caught up in street violence in Baltimore, it is understandable and commendable that the city has undertaken steps to prevent further violence. We, however, join with those who argue that the city’s efforts and resources would be far better spent if they were geared toward helping families and at-risk youth rather than criminalizing them. The city should be focused on providing well-funded community centers and safe havens for children as well as support programs for parents and families. The city should be fighting to ensure working parents can earn enough money to pay for child care if they work nights. If that is not possible, the city should devote its energy to figuring out how to provide assistance for families in need of child care services. Teens should not have to take part-time jobs to ensure their families have a place to live and food to eat, but they should have opportunities to learn job skills in a safe environment. Finally, to those who argue that it is not their responsibility to provide these services we would counter that it has to be more cost-effective to provide for intervention programs and youth and family services rather than costly police patrols and additional juvenile justice cases.