Baltimore plans to resume enforcement of an evening curfew on young residents, a response from Mayor Brandon Scott to surging youth gun violence and the most violent start to a year for teens since at least 2015.
The controversial tool has been on Baltimore’s books for more than 20 years but enforced only sporadically. Since the mayor’s announcement Sunday night that the city is “going back to the old days” to enforce curfews, the decision has drawn fire from numerous angles – from advocates for criminal justice reform to the police union to high school students. The move comes as the city has looked to minimize police interactions with teens, and despite research on curfews from some other cities that have found the policy to be largely ineffective.
Scott made the announcement late Sunday night, following an Inner Harbor shooting that hospitalized two teenagers. Here’s what you need to know:
What is Baltimore’s curfew law?
The city’s youth curfew policy requires kids younger than 14 years old to be home by 9 p.m., and those between 14 and 16 to be home by 11 p.m. between Memorial Day and the last Sunday of August. The rest of the year, the curfew for the older age group is 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 10 p.m. the rest of the week.
How the Scott administration will enforce the curfew this summer isn’t yet clear, but at the scene of Sunday’s shooting and at a press conference the following day, the mayor emphasized plans to rely on “Youth Connection Centers” — late-night recreation centers where law enforcement can drop off kids they catch out after hours.
The mayor’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about the particulars of curfew enforcement, including the number of youth centers they plan to operate or how much those services will cost the city. During a previous period of enforcement under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the city ran two curfew centers, one in East Baltimore and one in West Baltimore, staffed by a mix of police officers and social workers, according to 2014 reporting in The Baltimore Sun.
Scott said Monday the centers will be in place by Memorial Day weekend.
How old is Baltimore’s curfew law?
Baltimore has had a curfew on the books since at least 1994, but the policy’s specifics have evolved over the years, even as changing mayoral administrations have opted to enforce the rules on an on-again, off-again basis.
The City Council tightened the law back in 2014, approving one of the strictest youth curfews in the country under legislation championed by then-Councilman Brandon Scott. The policy imposed stricter time requirements on teenagers while raising potential fines for citations to $500, according to Sun reporting. Financial penalties could be waived if parents and children agreed to attend counseling services, and Scott noted then that his update to the curfew removed incarceration as a possible penalty.
But debates over curfews in Baltimore date back much further than Scott’s time in public office.
A curfew bill went into effect across the city in 1994, according to Sun reporting from the time. Under the law, young people under 17 were supposed to be off the streets after 11 p.m. during the week and after midnight on weekends.
The policy at the time carried carceral teeth: Teens who violated the curfew could be detained at “juvenile holding centers,” fined, or, on the second offense, serve jail time as an alternative.
Police detained over 1,100 people under the curfew law in 1995 until it was suspended in July of that year. The suspension came due to “constitutional concerns” from the city’s then-police commissioner, who cautioned that curfew arrests must stand up in court, according to Sun reporting. Those debates over the curfew came in response to a stretch of intense youth violence and, in the words of one article, sparked “a weeklong City Hall furor that culminated in youths hurling batteries and bottles at two City Council members during a tour of Park Heights neighborhood.”
Old newspaper clips indicate some form of curfew for young people existed in Baltimore prior to 1994, but an article from that year states that it had “rarely been enforced.” The Banner found only scarce information on earlier iterations of the policy.
Do curfews work?
Hundreds of cities across the U.S. have curfews in place for young people, but some studies show that they are not effective in reducing crime.
A 2015 study that measured the effects of a curfew policy in Washington, D.C., – enacted in 1955 – found that gunfire in the city actually increased during curfew hours, and called its effect on safety “ambiguous.” Another report published in 2016 by the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit research network, which looked at 12 different reports from several areas, including Prince George’s County and D.C., determined that curfews do not have much effect on juvenile crime — or on crime in general.
In Philadelphia, a youth curfew has been on the books since 1955, but the policy has drawn recent debate there as the City Council voted in December to impose a permanent 10 p.m. curfew for teens. That’s despite findings by The Philadelphia Inquirer that the vast majority of youth shootings since 2015 have happened in the hours before curfew, with just over a quarter of juvenile shootings happening overnight.
In recent days, both law enforcement and criminal justice reform groups have come out against Scott’s decision to enforce the city curfew. Police union president Mike Mancuso questioned in a letter Monday how the city’s already strapped police force will be able to take on the added burden of curfew enforcement, while the Maryland Office of the Public Defender condemned what it called “performative acts that give the appearance of public safety.”
“What we have learned since the ‘old days’ is that curfews are unconditional, racially biased policing strategies that drive unnecessary and harmful contact between police and Black and brown children,” Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said.
Even Scott said Monday afternoon that the policy would not necessarily have prevented the Easter night shooting that prompted his decision in the first place. That shooting occurred just past 9 p.m. in the Inner Harbor in the presence of police officers and injured a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old.
“Never have I said — and never will I say — that curfew and curfew alone is about saving young people or preventing specific acts of violence,” Scott said. “It’s about another tool in keeping our young people safe.”
Why hasn’t the law been enforced?
At a news conference Monday Scott pointed to pandemic changes that have prevented the city from operating late-night youth centers in the last few years. Now that the pandemic has eased, the first-term Democrat said the city can reinstate some of its old programs.
Scott’s office and the Baltimore Police Department did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday seeking the time frames in which the city has enforced the youth curfew in the past.
But decisions to enforce the rule seem to have posed challenges to city officials and law enforcement over the years. Under Mayor Catherine Pugh, the city moved to resume curfew enforcement heading into the summer of 2018 but directed officers to take kids home rather than to connection centers.
At other points, critics have argued that law enforcement should focus attention on more severe criminal activity than kids who are out too late. In the first month of enforcement under Scott’s updated curfew in 2014, fewer kids than expected were picked up by law enforcement past curfew — about four per night — according to Sun reporting at the time.
Backers like Scott told The Sun then that the trickle of kids through the late-night centers indicated the curfew was doing its job: keeping kids at home. Another council member who opposed the policy argued that few kids had been brought through the connection centers because law enforcement wasn’t actually enforcing the rule.