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States Wield Parent Fines in Fight Against Crime

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In West Virginia, if your child scrawls graffiti on a government building, the state could send you a bill for up to $5,000.

In California, you could face a $1,500 fine if you neglect to supervise your child while he performs court-ordered community service.

And in Oregon, if your teenager violates the curfew law, you may be required to attend a parenting class or pay a $1,000 fine.

This is the new cost of parenting in the 1990s, according to state leaders who have become increasingly fond of legislation that makes parents pay when their children break the law.

The Price for Parents

Frustrated with the increase in juvenile crime in recent years, about 20 legislatures recently have adopted laws that hold parents financially responsible for their offspring's crimes, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

From Illinois to Arizona, parents can be asked to shell out from $100 to $25,000 for their children's offenses, ranging from curfew violations to violent assaults.

"I hope this gets their attention," Mike Lehman, a Democratic state representative in Oregon, said of parents.

Mr. Lehman helped write a new law giving courts the authority to order parents to pay up to $1,000 if their child is convicted of certain offenses. That law took effect last September.

"If you are going to lock kids up for serious crimes, then parents should be held responsible," Mr. Lehman said last week.

In California, Assemblyman Phil Hawkins, a Republican, says he is equally supportive of this tactic.

Mr. Hawkins wrote a law that became effective last month that allows judges to order parents to accompany their child to court or face a contempt charge.

Parents who sometimes have no idea what their child has been doing should be compelled by the court to become involved, Mr. Hawkins said.

Under the law, judges also are allowed to order parents to perform community service if their child is found guilty.

"People are fed up with the ways little hoodlums are running around and treating society, and we are ready to do something about it now," Mr. Hawkins said last week.

Part of Larger Effort

Most of the parental-responsibility laws that have swept through state legislatures in the past few years were part of larger juvenile-justice efforts designed to get tough on youth crime.

At the same time that they were imposing stiff penalties for parents, many lawmakers across the country pushed through bills that toughened sentences for juveniles, allowed minors to be tried as adults, and paid for more juvenile-detention facilities. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

The growing number of young people involved in violent crimes has helped to fuel the swift passage of such measures.

The number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes has shot up 47 percent in the past five years, according to a 1995 study by the U.S. Department of Justice. Juvenile arrests for violent crime are projected to double by 2010, the report said. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

Though it's too early to determine whether these new parental-responsibility laws have had any positive results, many state legislators have said they modeled their laws on local ordinances they considered effective in reducing juvenile crime.

In Silverton, Ore., Police Chief Randy Lunsford said that since a local law was enacted last year to fine parents for their children's minor offenses, juvenile crime in the town of 6,400 has dropped by 44.5 percent.

Dodging the Problem

But lawmakers and police aside, most juvenile-justice experts say they doubt a financial pinch on parents will modify a delinquent child's behavior.

"It's naive to think this is going to produce the desired change," said James Austin, the executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a Washington-based research organization.

"It's dodging the problem, and that is that parents don't have the parenting skills," he said.

Those states that mandate parenting classes when a juvenile commits a crime may be on the right track, Mr. Austin said.

But if states simply fine parents without offering family support services, states could just end up in the fine-collection business, he said.

Other juvenile-justice experts say penalizing poor parents who may not be able to afford the fees could have negative consequences for children.

"Many of these kids come from families in a lot of crisis, and making parents pay may exacerbate the problems," said Mark Soler, the president of the Youth Law Center, a public-interest law firm based in San Francisco. "The parents pay and pay and then take it out on their kids."

But many state leaders argue that these new laws offer alternatives to cash penalties, such as community service. And judges often have the discretion to dismiss the charges against the parents if, for instance, a parent proves to the judge that he or she has made a good-faith effort at discipline.

Critics, however, argue that putting the state's stamp of approval on the idea of penalizing parents can lead to extreme sentences by local judges.

As an example, they point to the widely reported recent case of a South Carolina mother who was literally chained to her 15-year-old daughter, who was awaiting sentencing on charges of shoplifting, breaking and entering, and truancy.

Long-Term Trend?

Despite these concerns, however, it's unlikely the wave of parental-responsibility legislation will end soon.

Just last month, Gov. Pete Wilson of California announced in his State of the State Address another proposal to dig into parents' wallets.

He proposed fining parents if their child violates a local curfew ordinance. Under Mr. Wilson's plan, local police agencies would be authorized to write parents a ticket, an aide to the governor said.

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

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