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States to Parents: Pay for Your Children's Crimes

Parent-responsibility laws are spreading across the country; but critics of reforms say more than a quick fix is needed

FRUSTRATED with juvenile crime, state lawmakers around the nation are passing measures that hold parents liable for their children's offenses.

The new laws have two explicit purposes: to rein in juvenile crime and to impose higher standards of parenting. But critics say they are just a quick fix for one of the nation's most troubling problems.

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Nevertheless, the march of parental-responsibility laws is proceeding across the country:

*In West Virginia, courts may fine parents up to $5,000 for graffiti on public property or other damages caused by their children.

*In Oregon, parents whose children violate curfew laws must attend a parenting class or pay a $1,000 fine.

*In Louisiana, parents can be penalized for permitting their children to associate with a gang member.

*In Oklahoma, parents can be ordered to pay a fine or perform community service if their child is found in possession of a firearm on school property.

In recent years, about 20 state legislatures have passed laws holding parents responsible for their children's crimes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Many of these measures are part of large-scale overhauls of state juvenile-justice systems. Fines range from $100 to $25,000 for offenses as benign as truancy and as serious as gun-related assaults. Penalties also include mandated parenting courses, community-service work, or payment of detention costs.

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As far back as seven years ago, California began requiring parents to participate in probation programs. In the early '90s, some states mandated that parents reimburse court costs and pay for juvenile incarceration or counseling. In the past few years, however, state laws increasing parents' liability have proliferated and grown more specific, says Elizabeth Pearson of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The idea behind these laws is that parents are somehow at fault for failing to control their children," says Barry Feld, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "Legislators want to show that they are doing something by getting tough on parents. But the problems of youth crime are too complicated to apply quick solutions like this."

Legislators say the laws are designed to refocus parents on their responsibilities. "I hope this gets [parents'] attention," says Mike Lehman, a Democratic state representative who sponsored the Oregon bill that went into effect last year.

Earth to Dad

The problem is that some parents have no idea of the trouble their children are facing, says California Assemblyman Phil Hawkins, author of a law requiring parents to accompany their child to court or face contempt charges.

In his State of the State Address earlier this year, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) proposed fining parents whose children violate local curfew ordinances.

"Parents are morally responsible for the behavior of their minor children," Mr. Wilson argued in his address. "They should be legally responsible for the costs as well."

But critics view parental-responsibility laws as a desperate attempt to come up with a simple, politically appealing solution to the complex problem of juvenile delinquency.

"It doesn't really solve anything for the state to give up and turn things over to the parents," says Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington. "It's too simplistic to say that if we can't control these kids, we'll make sure that the parents do."

What's needed, Mr. Soler argues, is more support for families before their children get into trouble. "It's much easier to pass a law saying that if the kids cause trouble, the parents are responsible. Yet many of these kids come from families that are not very functional or are in extreme crisis themselves."

Mr. Feld says the rush to hold parents liable for their children's misdeeds is just one more in a long line of juvenile-justice fads. "The whole field of juvenile justice is strewn with quick-fix solutions and simple-minded strategies to deal with complex problems," he says. "I know of no systemic evaluation that demonstrates the effectiveness of these statutes."

But supporters are convinced that the laws are having a positive effect. Oregon's state law is modeled after a local ordinance in the small town of Silverton where Police Chief Randy Lunsford credits the local law with a 45 percent drop in juvenile crime.

Johnny, be good

The goal is to keep kids out of more serious trouble later in life, says Oregon State representative Bryan Johnston. "We want to involve parents before a child gets on a path to more significant offenses," he says.

Most parents already want and try to control their teenagers, Feld counters. "Legislators look at themselves and their own kids and try to make the world like themselves," he says. "But the reality is much different. Where you have kids getting in trouble, it's part of a much larger set of problems." Those family struggles need to be addressed rather than exacerbated through punitive fines, Feld says.

"The general idea of getting parents more involved with their kids when they are troubled is a good one," Soler says. "But there is a serious concern that these fines are going to hit people who don't have the money to pay for them. What are you going to do, put parents in jail if they can't pay the fine? What will that solve?"

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