Parents and Crime

PARENTS have a responsibility for the behavior of their children. But it's not an absolute responsibility. At some point young people become more and more accountable for their own actions. Fixing parental blame for the criminal acts of offspring is, therefore, a very difficult task. California is attempting it nonetheless. The Legislature passed an anti-youth-gang law last year that includes a provision allowing parents to be arrested for failing to discourage a child's gang activities.

The first arrest under that provision came last week. Gloria Williams, a single working mother of three, is charged with ``failure to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control'' over her teen-age son. The youth, alleged to be a member of the Crips street gang, is a rape suspect.

In Mrs. Williams's home, police found photos and graffiti indicating her son's gang connection. Prosecutors say the evidence of her collusion with the gang is unmistakable. Mrs. Williams says authorities are harassing her family.

Beyond the specifics of this case, a basic issue is the reach of this law. Some legal experts argue that convicting people for what they didn't do - i.e., exercise enough control over their kids - violates basic tenets of justice. Should parents be arrested for the drug addiction of their children, for example?

Backers of the law say it will be applied only in cases where irresponsibility is conscious and flagrant. Prosecutors believe the Williams case fits this description. They recognize that many parents genuinely don't know what their teen-age offspring are up to. But these qualifications don't reassure those with doubts about the whole idea of prosecuting parents for the acts of their offspring.

The idea is being applied more widely than on just the gang issue. Wisconsin law allows parents to be forced to support the children of their unmarried teens. New federal procedures allow eviction of whole families from public housing if one member uses or sells drugs.

In each instance, grave social ills - youth gangs, drug use, teen pregnancy - are being addressed by asserting family responsibility. Will the threat of legal sanction force parents and families to shape up? Or will it only heighten tension and fear? Would mandatory family counseling be a more constructive option than fines, eviction, or imprisonment?

Government and law enforcement need families on their side in the fight against delinquency and drugs. While the motivation behind California's law is understandable, given the state's extensive gang problem, we doubt this statute will help bring about that partnership.

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