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Juvenile Justice Reform Initiatives in the States

Parental Responsibility Laws

Susan and Anthony Provenzino of St. Clair Shores, MI, knew their 16-year-old son, Alex, was troubled. His first arrest occurred in May 1995, and in the year that followed, he continued his delinquent behavior by committing burglary, drinking alcohol, and using and selling marijuana. Alex was difficult at home as well, verbally abusing his parents and once attacking his father with a golf club. Although the Provenzinos were disturbed by Alex's behavior, they supported his release from juvenile custody during the fall of 1995, fearing he would be mistreated in the youth facility where he was detained -- a facility where juveniles charged with more violent crimes were housed.70

It is unlikely that the Provenzinos expected to be the first parents tried and convicted of violating a 2-year-old St. Clair Shores ordinance that places an affirmative responsibility on parents to ". . . exercise reasonable control over their children."71 On May 5, 1996, however, after a jury deliberated only 15 minutes, the Provenzinos were convicted of violating the parental accountability ordinance. They were each fined $100 and ordered to pay an additional $1,000 in court fees.72

The Provenzino case brought national attention to a growing trend at both State and local levels to combat youth crime: the enactment of parental responsibility laws imposing liability on parents for the delinquent behavior of their children. Caught somewhere between prevention and punishment for both children and parents, these laws attempt to involve parents in the lives of their children by holding them civilly and/or criminally liable for their children's actions. Penalties for violation of these laws include increased participation by parents in juvenile proceedings; financial responsibility for restitution payments and court costs; financial responsibility for detention, treatment, and supervisory costs; participation in treatment, counseling, or other diversion programs; and criminal responsibility and possible jail time for parents found negligent in their supervision. Although the effectiveness of these laws has not been evaluated in a systematic way, the notion of parental responsibility has attracted broad support.

Various types of legislation mandating a minimum level of parental responsibility have been a part of this Nation's history since its inception. The objective of these laws is to impose affirmative duties on parents to provide necessities for the youth in their custody and to ensure they do not abuse or abandon their children. According to P. Thomas Mason, in his article "Child Abuse and Neglect," States have established criminal sanctions against parents who have abused, severely neglected, or abandoned their children since the early years of American history.73 Other related efforts to establish a minimum standard of parenting include compulsory school attendance laws and criminal nonsupport laws.74

Tort liability for damages caused by delinquent youth is yet another way States traditionally have held parents accountable for the misdeeds of their children. Typically, tort law varies from State to State regarding the monetary thresholds on damages collected, the age limit of the child, and the inclusion of personal injury in the tort claim. Hawaii was the first State to enact such legislation in 1846, and its law remains one of the most broadly applied in that it does not limit the financial bounds of recovery and imposes liability for both negligent and intentional torts by underage persons.75 Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and New Jersey also do not place a limit on the amount of recovery. Today, all States but New Hampshire and New York have provisions holding parents civilly responsible for youth crime, with an average maximum recovery amount of $4,100.76

Legislation holding parents criminally responsible for the delinquent acts of their children quickly followed the enactment of civil liability and neglect-type statutes. In 1903, Colorado became the first State to establish the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (CDM). Supporters of CDM statutes believe that the conditions within the family are the most predictive component of a child's behavior and that it is the responsibility of the parent to provide sufficient positive guidance to children on the importance of adhering to the values of society at large. This type of legislation quickly gained popular support, and since the enactment of the Colorado initiative, at least 42 States and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation.77 One of the oldest of such laws, an amended CDM statute from California, includes misdemeanor sanctions against parents who fail ". . . to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection and control over their children."78 The California law was expanded in 1988 as a component of a larger, antigang initiative undertaken by the State. Violation of the provision brings a misdemeanor charge and may include a fine no greater than $2,500 and a 1-year prison term. In 1995, Arizona, Louisiana, and Wyoming enacted comparable laws creating a crime of "improper" or "negligent" parental supervision, with misdemeanor sanctions similar to the law in California.

Some States have taken action to hold parents liable when children gain access to a firearm, but their provisions vary in language and parental intent requirements. At least nine States hold adults criminally responsible for storing a loaded firearm in such a way as to allow a minor to gain access. Some of these provisions include an enhanced penalty if the minor causes injury or death to himself or another person and create exceptions for parental liability when the minor gains access to a weapon by unlawful entry into the home or place of storage or if the firearm is used in self-defense. In addition, 13 States have provisions that create criminal liability when a custodial adult or parent is aware that his or her child possesses a firearm unlawfully and does not take action to prevent the possession.79 Typically, penalties levied on parents for violation of safe storage laws are misdemeanors, but parents found guilty of these crimes in California, Connecticut, and Florida are subject to felony charges under some circumstances.80

While some States impose criminal liability on parents of delinquent youth, many more have enacted less stringent types of parental responsibility laws in the past 2 years. For example, some accountability initiatives require increased parental involvement in juvenile proceedings. Recent initiatives in Kansas, Michigan, and Texas require parents to attend the hearings of children adjudicated delinquent or face contempt charges. New legislation in Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia amends existing laws to require parents to pay the court costs associated with these proceedings.

Some States impose financial responsibility on parents for the costs incurred by the State when youth are processed through the juvenile justice system. New laws from Florida, Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia require parents to reimburse the State for the costs associated with the care, support, detention, or treatment of their children while under the supervision of State agencies. Further, measures from Idaho, Maryland, Missouri, and Oklahoma require parents to undertake restitution payments when children are not financially able to compensate their victims.

Initiatives to encourage parent and child togetherness are yet another approach incorporated into parental responsibility legislation in some States. In the past 2 years, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas have enacted legislation that requires parents and children to participate in community service activities after the youth has been in trouble with the law. In addition, new laws in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Oregon require parents to attend counseling or other court-ordered treatment programs. Recent legislation in Arkansas, Colorado, Texas, and Wisconsin requires adult participation in parent training and responsibility courses. Often, involvement in these types of programs is a diversion option, with participation deferring any further punitive sanction from the court.

While many States have embraced the idea of holding parents responsible for the actions of their children -- at least 36 States have mandated some type of responsibility provision beyond civil liability for parents or guardians of delinquent children -- others are critical of the idea, fearing legal challenges and citing a dearth of empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of parental responsibility initiatives.

Some legal scholars say legislation that attempts to define parent behavior is worded vaguely. This vagueness makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to understand what type of behavior falls within the purview of the law. For example, the lack of clarity of some CDM statutes has led courts in Connecticut, Louisiana, Oregon, and Wyoming to strike down this type of parental accountability law on "void for vagueness" grounds. The inability of the original statute to define practical, realistic, and comprehensible standards for the court to use consistently in determining parental negligence or incompetence is what led to the laws in these States being declared unconstitutional.81

Attempts to prescribe parent behavior may violate the established privacy right in child rearing. This fundamental right to privacy in family matters was established by the U.S. Supreme Court with two cases in the mid-1920's, Meyer v. Nebraska82 and Pierce v. Society of Sisters.83 In each case, the High Court restricted the State from impinging on parents' authority to raise a child. In only one case, Williams v. Garcetti,84 has the constitutionality of a current parental responsibility law been challenged at the State level (see box).

To date, no empirical study has been conducted to support the claim that these laws have an impact on youth crime. Much of the analysis of parental accountability laws has been limited to readily available data and has lacked the precision of statistical analysis. For example, Paul Alexander, a judge from Toledo, OH, tracked more than 1,000 cases of CDM violations between 1937 and 1946, half of which involved parents. According to Alexander, 75 percent of the parents pleaded guilty or were convicted, and of them, 25 percent were sent to prison as a part of their sentence. Although parents prosecuted under the statute exhibited some positive change in their parenting skills, the number of parents arrested steadily increased over the 10-year period. On the basis of this experience, Alexander noted: "We find no evidence that punishing parents has any effect whatsoever on the curbing of juvenile delinquency imprisonment means breaking up the family; fining means depriving the children and family of sustenance."85

In addition, a 1963 study undertaken by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare examined 16 States that had enacted civil parental liability statutes and compared the rate of juvenile crime in those States with those in the rest of the country. The study revealed that the rate of juvenile delinquency in the 16 States was slightly higher than the national average.86

Recent examples of self-reporting, however, offer a more promising evaluation of parental responsibility legislation. One well-publicized ordinance was adopted in Silverton, OR, in the fall of 1995, where parents are charged with the misdemeanor of "failing to supervise a minor" when a child under the age of 18 years violates any provision of the Silverton Municipal Code.87 Although the ordinance had only been in effect a short time, Silverton Mayor Ken Hector reported that the community of 6,400 had experienced a 44.5-percent reduction in juvenile crime and reduced levels of truancy. Further, school officials reported increases in the level of involvement of parents with their children.88

California's Statute Prevails Against Constitutional Challenge

California's law imposing criminal parental responsibility is one of the most stringent in the Nation. Enacted in 1988 as part of the Street Terrorism and Prevention Act, the law amended the State's CDM law by making it a crime when parents or guardians do not " exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control" over their children.89

One case from the Los Angeles area brought this provision before the State supreme court. In 1989, Gloria Williams was the first woman to be charged under the amended CDM statute. Williams' then-12-year-old son was suspected of having participated in a gang rape of a young girl. When police visited Williams' home, they found " . . . family photo albums [containing] pictures of the 37-year-old Williams posing with gang members known as 'Crips,'" and " pictures of her 4-year-old son pointing a pistol at the camera [and] spray-painted graffiti adorning the bedroom walls of the modest stucco house of Williams and her three children."90 The investigating detective, after searching the house, was quoted as saying, "I couldn't believe my eyes. In all my 20 years on the police force, I have never seen anything like this. It was obvious that the mother was just as much part of the problem because she condoned this activity."91

When it was shown that Gloria Williams had participated in a parenting course 2 months earlier, however, a local prosecutor indicated that it would violate the spirit of the law to try her because she had indeed taken steps to control her children by participating in parent education. As a result, the case against Williams was dropped.92

On behalf of Ms. Williams, Gary Williams, a professor of law at Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles, partnered with the ACLU in filing a taxpayers' lawsuit in California superior court. The plaintiff's contention was that the parental responsibility law was impermissibly vague and infringed upon the established right to privacy in family matters. Williams contended that the implementation of the law would be a waste of taxpayer funds.

Through a series of judgments and appeals, the Supreme Court of California upheld the language of the legislation, finding that the statute set a reasonable standard for parents who are making attempts to guide and control their children and that a statutorily defined notion of perfect parenting would be both inflexible and impractical.93



70. Jill Smolowe, Parenting on Trial, Time, May 20, 1996, at 50.

71. Id.

72. Robin Meredith, Michigan Parents Convicted for Youth's Misconduct, N.Y. Times, May 10, 1996.

73. Howard Davidson, No Consequences -- Re-examining Parental Responsibility Laws, 7 Stan. L & Pol'y Rev. 23, 25 (1996) (citing P. Thomas Mason, Child Abuse and Neglect, Part I: Historical Overview, Legal Matrix and Social Perspective, 50 N.C.L. Rev. 293­302 (1972)).

74. Id.

75. Gilbert Geis & Arnold Binder, Sins of Their Children: Parental Responsibility for Juvenile Delinquency, 5 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol'y 307 (1991).

76. Elizabeth Pearson, Parental Responsibility Laws: An Overview 62 (Aug. 6, 1996) (unpublished M. Public Affairs thesis, University of Colorado) (on file with author).

77. Id.

78. Cal. Penal Code § 272 (West 1988).

79. Model Juvenile Handgun Code 36 (National Criminal Justice Ass'n, Unpublished Draft 1995) [hereinafter Model Handgun Code].

80. National Conference of State Legislatures, Legisbrief, Kids, Guns, and Accidents: Taking Responsibility (Sept. 1993).

81. Kathryn Parsley, Constitutional Limitations on State Power to Hold Parents Criminally Liable for the Delinquent Acts of Their Children, 44 Vand. L. Rev. 446, 453 (1991).

82. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

83. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

84. Williams v. Garcetti, 853 P.2d. 507 (1993).

85. Geis & Binder, supra note 75, at 319.

86. Toni Weinstein, Visiting the Sins of the Child on the Parent: The Legality of Criminal Parental Responsibility Statutes, 64 S. Cal. L. Rev. 863, 878 (1991).

87. Silverton, Ore., Ordinance 95­117 (1995).

88. Hope Viner Sanborn, Kids' Crimes Can Send Parents to Jail, A.B.A. J., Mar. 1996, at 28.

89. Cal. Penal Code § 272.

90. Parents Getting Jailed for Kids' Gang Activities, Denver Post, May 7, 1989, at 4A.

91. Gang Member's Mother Denies 'Failure' Charge, L.A. Times, May 20, 1989, at 2.

92. Geis & Binder, supra note 75, at 315.

93. Adam Culbreath, Parental Liability Law Upheld in California, Youth Law News, Sept.­Oct. 1993, at 12.


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