Columbus to enforce curfew

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Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman wants to send a clear message to families throughout the community – beginning June 5, police are going to be strictly enforcing the curfew law for teens.

The mayor reasons that "nothing good happens when kids are on the streets at 2 a.m.," and kids breaking the curfew need to be brought in for their own safety and as a deterrent to crime.

Coleman announced the initiative during his March 13 State of the City address and further outlined the program at a conference the next day.

Columbus has had a curfew law on the books for decades that requires teens ages 13 to 17 to be home by midnight, and those under 13 to be in one hour after sunset.

But the problem has been where to take the teenagers when they are found by police.

Under the new program, the city is partnering with the YMCA on Long Street, which will keep the kids who are picked up until a parent or guardian comes to get them.

Similar to the school truancy program,  also run through the YMCA, children and families will be screened to determine if there are any underlying problems at home, and will be referred to the appropriate social service agency.

A first offense will require the kids and the parents to attend a three-hour workshop administered through the Safe and Drug Free Schools Consortium, which also participates in the truancy program.

A second offense will require community service. A third offense could result in criminal charges for the curfew violator and child neglect charges for the parents, both third-degree misdemeanors that could carry fines and jail time.

The effort is not meant to be punitive, but to emphasize the danger of having kids out late at night, Coleman said. "We want to make sure that kids aren’t victims, and to make sure they don’t graduate to more serious crimes. Let’s nip it in the bud."

He decided to make this a priority after riding with the police department’s strike force and witnessing the growing number of young people out late at night.

In one incident, officers pulled over a van at 2 in the morning that had been weaving and running stop signs. It turned out be a stolen vehicle, and none of its five passengers was older than 15.

Coleman called each of their parents, who didn’t believe it was the mayor on the phone until they had to retrieve their kids.

Each one was grateful that he had called, the mayor added.

Police Commander Jeff Blackwell said officers are looking forward to having an option to taking a kid to jail or babysitting them in the back of a cruiser for several hours while they try to locate the guardians.

"It’s not a crime problem, it’s a safety issue," Blackwell said.

The effort will cost $75,000 and will be funded through City Council’s safety initiative fund.

The fact that council members are willing to allocate the funds from a "no-frills" budget shows how important the program is, commented City Councilman Andrew Ginther, chairman of the safety committee.

The money will be spent for the staff who will monitor the teens.

Don Heard, who runs the YMCA’s truancy program, said they will have the capacity to hold 20 teens at a time.

With the truancy program, parents get their children within an hour or two of them being picked up, which Heard expects  will be the case with the curfew violators.

The curfew law allows exceptions for teens who are with a parent, are full-time college students or who have an emergency.

The challenge now will be getting the word out to every resident before June 5.

"I don’t want a single person to say they didn’t know," said Coleman, who also remembered the public service message on television that once asked "It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

Coleman has convened a committee to come up with ways to get the word out. Suggestions so far include posting notices and requesting announcements at schools and churches.

YMCA CEO John Bickley suggested that a deal could be worked out with Verizon that would directly text-message reminders to the cell phones of teens that they need to be in by midnight. Messages on MySpace and Facebook Internet sites were also suggested.

Coleman wants to so thoroughly blanket the city with his message that "by June 5 the community will know so much about this there won’t be any kids out."

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