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Cleveland toughened penalties for youth curfew violations, citing safety but eliciting concern

Ward 8 Councilmember Michael Polensek's name plate at his seat in the council chamber.
Natalia Garcia
Ideastream Public Media
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to send a message that if you’re going to have children in this city, then you’ve got to be responsible for them,” said Ward 8 Councilmember Mike Polensek during a Cleveland City Council meeting on Oct. 2, 2023.

The penalties for parents or guardians whose kids violate curfew are increasing in Cleveland after the city council approved legislation Monday in response to a summer of car thefts by the so-called Kia Boys and high-profile incidents of violent crimes allegedly committed by juveniles.

But civil rights advocates say curfews like Cleveland’s raise fundamental civil rights questions.

“This really is a type of almost maximum authority by the government to say, ‘You are a certain age, you're a certain demographic, you're in a certain community, sorry, it's 10:00, it's 9:00, it's 11:00 or something,’” said Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “’Go inside and don't come back out.’”

The courts haven’t addressed the civil rights question directly, Daniels said. Instead, they’ve focused on whether curfews interfere with First Amendment rights to practice religion or protest and whether a curfew is in response to a documented problem.

Daniels added, there are also questions about whether curfews work.

A 2016 review of 12 studies on juvenile curfews by the nonprofit Campbell Collaboration found little evidence that curfews reduce crime.

But proponents of curfews have long argued they can serve as a tool for both police and parents by denying delinquent youth the opportunity to engage in crime, protecting kids who are not engaged in crime and legitimizing parents' rules against staying out late.

During Cleveland City Council’s hearing on the new legislation, sponsor Councilmember Mike Polensek said there’s been an increase in kids staying out past curfew and only a few cases against parents are going through municipal court.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to send a message that if you’re going to have children in this city, then you’ve got to be responsible for them,” Polensek said.

Cleveland first passed a juvenile curfew in 2007. That law made it illegal for children under 14 to be out after 9:30 p.m. Fifteen- and 16-year-olds had to be home by 11:00 p.m. and 17-year-olds by midnight.

The Cleveland Division of Police does not issue many curfew citations — only 24 so far this year, up from 15 at this point last year. The city does not report the number of tickets given to parents.

Deputy Chief Dorothy Todd told council the department supports the new legislation, but officers will use their discretion when they encounter kids out after curfew.

“If a juvenile is out... clearly somewhere they should not be and doing something they should not be doing, then the expectation is their parent is issued a curfew citation,” Todd said.

Under the new legislation, a parent charged with a child’s curfew violation now faces a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable with up to $250 of fines, community service or jail time. Then, on a second offense, they would face a third-degree misdemeanor.

The curfew has exceptions for kids accompanied by a guardian or on their way to or from work. Councilmember Stephanie Howse also added a requirement that municipal court conduct a “root cause analysis” when a parent appears in court to better understand why the juvenile was breaking the law.

The legislation passed Monday but with lukewarm support.

Ward One Councilmember Joe Jones said he didn’t see a problem with lots of kids out late at night in his ward — which includes the Lee-Harvard and Union-Miles neighborhoods.

“I will support it,” Jones said. “But I just want the police department... to have ease when they come to Lee-Harvard, Ward One, when it deals with this.”

Gary Daniels of the ACLU of Ohio said politicians often respond to crime by increasing penalties to show that they are doing something. So, he asked, why not pass a curfew for all adults?

“And it will likely have an impact on crime, of course, with nobody else on the streets,” Daniels said. “But, you know, that's not what we do or what we're supposed to be doing in this country or this state.”

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.