Effectiveness of jail time for parents questioned in South Fulton

Jan 31, 2018

Brandon Mann’s mother was strict, he said, but as a teenager, he didn’t always listen to her.

Mann committed crimes: he entered automobiles and burglarized homes. When he was 18, he was convicted of armed robbery, a felony. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

“She did the best she could,” he said. “It’s hard for a man to take instruction from a woman, especially growing up. … I don’t blame her for that.”

But in the new city of South Fulton, where Mann lives, there’s a call for parents like his to take more responsibility for — and perhaps control over — their children’s actions.

City of South Fulton Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis leads a Town Hall Discussion on a ordinance to hold parents more accountable for their children’s actions at the South Fulton County Government Annex Building. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

City Councilwoman Helen Zenobia Willis has proposed requiring parents to take classes or participate in other diversion programs to help them manage unruly children, if those children get in trouble with the law. If the parents don’t, or their interventions prove worthless, the proposed law could fine them up to $100 or send them to jail for up to 30 days.

The response to Willis’ idea has been mixed. Many South Fulton residents are frustrated with a slew of crimes, often committed by juveniles, that they say has terrorized the city. They like the idea of taking action.

Others question whether the proposal is fair to parents who are often struggling, and how effective it might be. While similar laws to hold parents responsible for the actions of their children exist across the country, Eve Brank, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, said there is very little research about what happens once they’re enacted.

The public generally supports the idea of such laws, Brank said, but weakly — when researchers start to ask questions about specific people and their individual circumstances, support goes “way down.”

Since a community meeting Monday night, Willis said she’s only received positive responses to her idea. Even those that might not want to send parents to jail thank her for taking on the problem.

“They’re tired of being victimized,” she said. “They want parents to be accountable. … Some of these parents need help.”

January 29, 2018 South Fulton: South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards speaks during a Town Hall Discussion on a ordinance to hold parents more accountable for their children's actions at the South Fulton County Government Annex Building on Monday, January 29, 2018, in South Fulton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Tonya Blanks, who lives in South Fulton, is one of the parents who supports Willis’ efforts. The mother of two daughters, 11 and 13, Blanks said she carries a gun on her hip each time she leaves the house because of the increase in crime in her neighborhood.

Blanks said she’s raising her daughters to be productive citizens, and she knows where they are at all times. If her girls leave the house, she said, an alarm goes off.

“Everything that happens starts at home,” she said. “I don’t want to lock everyone up, but accountability is important. Something has to be done.”

‘Start with the causes’

Others agree that there is a problem, but not with the proposed solution. Victor Brazil, who lives in South Fulton, said he’s not “overly enthused” about the ordinance, but sees it as a starting point. More than punishment, he said, families need holistic solutions with the school system, the courts, the city and other institutions helping parents whose children refuse to listen, and don’t follow the law.

LEARN MORE: About the city of South Fulton

Sherran Nutson, who also lives in the city, said she thinks requiring parents to participate in what could be time-consuming or costly programs after a first offense asks too much — especially when the city isn’t taking steps to deal with the root causes of the issues children may be having. Her husband, Johnny Nutson, said he thought the proposal amounted to an attempt to legislate against poverty. Often, he said, children are committing property crimes as a way to get money to feed themselves.

Laws like this one disproportionately affect single parents, the poor and other marginalized communities, Brank said. In a city where the leadership is all black, and most of the residents are, too, some questioned whether government leaders had a responsibility to focus on solutions other than fines and jail.

January 29, 2018 South Fulton: Local parents Marcus & Nakia Coleman attend a Town Hall Discussion on a ordinance to hold parents more accountable for their children's actions at the South Fulton County Government Annex Building on Monday, January 29, 2018, in South Fulton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Marcus Coleman, an activist and a South Fulton resident, said he would like to see more innovative and creative ways to help troubled teens.

“You can’t lock up your way out of this problem of juvenile crime,” he said. “I think Councilwoman Willis has a good spirit, but I think she has blinders on to the core root of the problem.”

Burrell Ellis, the political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said taking working parents away from their families for any period of time can exacerbate social problems, not solve them.

“Everything is designed toward after the child gets in trouble,” said Bobbie Barker, a South Fulton resident who said he was concerned about the proposal. “If you want to solve the problem, you start with the causes.”

Since being released from prison, Mann said, he’s worked hard to make better choices. But if his mother had been held responsible for his misdeeds, he’s not sure if that would have been the case.

“I feel like it would have made me more distraught, to go against the system even more,” he said. “Like, the more bad I do, the more you take away from me.”

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