A January meeting in South Fulton on an ordinance to hold parents more accountable for their children’s crimes drew hundreds of residents. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com AJC FILE PHOTO

South Fulton to consider sending parents to jail for children’s crimes

Glenda Collins and Diane Johnson agree that parents need to have better control of their children.

But they’re not quite sure that a city of South Fulton proposal that would hold parents responsible for their children’s crimes is the best way to encourage that.

Both women attended a city council hearing Tuesday on the ordinance, which would require the parents of children arrested for certain crimes, such as curfew violations or possession of alcohol or drugs, to attend parenting classes or other diversion programs for the first offense. If the parents don’t comply — or if their children are arrested a second time — they could be fined up to $100 or jailed for up to 10 days.

“Children need some discipline,” Collins said. “Something has to be done. You cannot just let a child run wild in a neighborhood, creating havoc with neighbors.”

But, she wondered, what would happen to the children while their parents are in jail?

And, Johnson asked, who would pay for parenting classes or other programs?

Locking parents up is a last resort, said Helen Zenobia Willis, the city councilwoman who proposed the ordinance. She described the parenting classes or therapy sessions that would be required after a first offense as the equivalent of a traffic ticket, an opportunity to avoid fines and jail while still letting residents know that they needed to take more responsibility for their kids who are under age 18.

City Council is expected to vote on the proposal March 20.

Parental responsibility laws are becoming more common and have been adopted in cities in Michigan, New York and Wisconsin. And, in 2013, DeKalb passed a law allowing parents to be charged for their children’s actions.

Two council members, Naeema Gilyard and Rosie Jackson, expressed support for the South Fulton proposal. Others had questions about how the law would work. Were there enough diversion programs, like anger management classes or family counseling, in the new city of about 100,000 people? Would parents who live outside of South Fulton be subject to the law if their children committed crimes inside the city limits?

Paul Howard, the Fulton County district attorney, said in a statement in January that the proposal could be unconstitutional. He asked the city not to pass it. Willis countered that it was not up to Howard to set city laws.

Howard said children would be better served by officials working to improve public education and increase economic opportunity, “rather than punishing and jailing parents who may be subject to the same issues as the children they are attempting to raise.”

Experts said the proposed punishments are misguided. Both a fine and jail time can add stressors that could hurt families more than they help them, said Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory Law. Diversion programs could keep parents from spending time with their children.

“It’s hurting the wrong person,” she said of the proposed law. “They’re not standing next to their kids while they’re committing crimes.”

LaDawn Jones, the South Fulton solicitor, said punishments would be meted out on a case-by-case basis. She hopes to have an employee who evaluates the needs of families to determine what would be most helpful for families. That could also give her office the option not to hold parents responsible if they seem to be doing everything they can for a child.

Willis’ proposal has been scaled back since she first suggested a 30-day jail sentence for noncompliance.

Juvenile offenses that could bring punishment for parents include possessing stolen property, missing school without an excused absence, having an illegal firearm or willfully destroying property.

Willis said she had a lot of support from residents of the city, which formed last May. Many have been frustrated with a spate of break-ins, car thefts and other crimes that police believe have largely been perpetrated by juveniles.

Perhaps, Collins said, fining parents for their children’s actions is the right compromise between jail time and doing nothing. After all, it’s the children who are committing the crimes, but something needs to be done to get parents’ attention, she said.

“That’s the whole purpose of becoming a city, to put laws in place that will let you have a better quality of life,” she said. “That’s what everybody wants. A better quality of life.”

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