Metro Atlanta city leader wants to jail parents for children’s crimes

Fed up with break-ins, car thefts and other crimes she said have been perpetrated by teenagers in her area, a City of South Fulton councilwoman has proposed a law that could send parents to jail for their children’s crimes.

It brings South Fulton, a new city of nearly 100,000 people south of Atlanta, into a national conversation over how much responsibility parents bear for their children’s actions. Cities in Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and other states have passed their own versions of a parental responsibility law, as it is called, to push back against everything from curfew violations to bullying. A DeKalb County law, passed in 2013, was used last month to hold parents responsible for their children’s theft of $9,000 worth of guns from a pawn shop, Channel 2 Action News reported.

But some question their efficacy, wondering what good it does to punish a parent or guardian for a child’s crime.

Supporters of such laws say they can encourage parents to pay closer attention to what their children are doing. Opponents say the punishments are misguided.

“It’s hurting the wrong person,” Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory Law, said of the proposed law. “They’re not standing next to their kids while they’re committing crimes.”

Paul Howard, the Fulton County district attorney, said in a statement that he thought the proposal could be unconstitutional. Nevertheless, he said he does not believe current research supports the proposal. Children would be better served by better responses to poor public education, lack of economic opportunity and other contributing factors to juvenile crime, he said, “rather than punishing and jailing parents who may be subject to the same issues as the children they are attempting to raise.”

“I am asking the City of South Fulton not to pass this ordinance at this time,” Howard said.

Helen Zenobia Willis, the South Fulton councilwoman behind the proposal, said it was not up to Howard.

At a community meeting in South Fulton Monday night, nearly 200 people packed a standing-room only meeting room. They questioned the lack of community support and jobs for teenagers, saying there aren’t as many opportunities for their children as there once were. Residents also asked why judges weren’t more strict about juvenile offenders.

The meeting sometimes felt like a church service, with calls and shouts in response to residents’ comments. City and other representatives said they wanted to make sure it wasn’t only mothers who bore the burden of keeping children in check.

Jane Williams, who lives in South Fulton, said she thinks there’s more the city can do.

“You should always know where your child is,” she said. “I do agree with legislation that would hold parents more accountable.”

Willis said her proposal was a result of requests from residents, and came about following a spate of crimes that have terrorized the city. Last spring, Fulton County police identified nearly two dozen people, most of them juveniles, who were stealing unlocked cars in gas stations and from driveways.

Since then, Willis said, there have been more break-ins and other crimes. So she proposed an incentive: the punishment of as many as 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $100 mirrors Georgia’s truancy law, Willis said. But the reasons for being subject to those penalties would be far broader in South Fulton.

Parents could run afoul of the law if their children bring unregistered guns or non-prescribed controlled substances into the house, or if they destroy property, have stolen items or possess alcohol.

Willis said the goal of her ordinance is not punishment — the current draft calls for parents or guardians to attend a parenting class or complete a diversion program through the city. But if parents are not engaged with their children, Willis said she wants to push them to act.

“These are the things we should be doing as parents for kids anyway,” she said. “You have parents who just don’t care. … At the end of the day, you are responsible.”

Parents can’t help in every instance, though. Tracy L. Rolle, whose younger brother was sent to prison with a mandatory 15-year sentence, said her mother did everything she could to help her son. If the law had been on the books when she was growing up, Rolle said, her mother — who had eight children — would have been sent to jail, or been stuck paying fine after fine.

“It’s crazy,” said Rolle, who now owns a pretrial diversion program. “You can’t divorce your children.”

Fines and jail time have problems, Waldman said. The $100 fee could have gone toward food, and sending a parent to jail could get a child in touch with the Division of Family and Children Services. Both add additional stressors that could hurt families more than they help them.

In upstate New York, North Tonawanda Police Chief Roger Zgolak said the ordinance came about in his city, last fall, because the existing curfew law lacked teeth.

His city’s law calls for a maximum $250 fine and 15 days in jail. So far, he said, it’s been well received. It also hasn’t been used.

“We have yet to cite a parent for this ordinance. It’s our hope that we’ll never have to,” Zgolak said. “We aren’t looking to lock parents up every single day. We’re looking for them to take an active role. Maybe they’ve gotten the message.”

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