Oregon Drafts Parents In War on Teen Crime
r Juvenile crime is soaring in America. Now Oregon takes a bold step - holding parents liable for their children's misdeeds. But will it work? And is government intruding too far into family affairs?
ASHLAND, ORE. — ONE teenager is caught smoking. Another swipes a $14.99 bottle of cologne. A third is found drinking beer in a pool hall. Authorities cite the parents - not just the teens - for failing to supervise their children and order them to take special classes or face a $1,000 fine.
Innovative response to juvenile crime? Or unconstitutional intrusion into family matters?
This week, Oregon became the first state in the nation to make this kind of parental responsibility a concern of government. For ''failing to supervise a child'' under the age of 15 who violates the juvenile code, breaks a local curfew, or skips school, parents here may be fined up to $1,000 and have to pay as much as $2,500 in restitution to crime victims.
''Anything we can do to keep children from getting deeper into a life of crime is going to be good for them and good for society,'' Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) said in signing the law, which went into effect this weekend.
Experts see this as part of two trends in the country: the move to affix personal responsibility for wrongdoing - including the wrongdoing of one's teenagers - and a more general crackdown on serious juvenile crime, which a new United States Justice Department report says is accelerating at an alarming rate.
''People are very concerned about what's going on with kids today,'' says Julie Shapiro, who teaches family law at Seattle University Law School. ''So it's neither surprising nor inappropriate that they look for some problem within the family.''
The new state law here is patterned after one in Silverton, Ore., that's been in effect since the first of the year and has gained widespread attention. (The three cases cited above were in Silverton.)
In this town of fewer than 6,200 people, 11 parents have been cited under the law. Of those cases, four were dismissed on technical grounds, two resulted in parents being ordered to take parent-effectiveness courses, two parents were found not guilty, and three cases are pending.
Drop in crime
Those numbers are small, but the most interesting development to Mayor Ken Hector is that juvenile crime is down 53 percent over the same period last year.
''That's shoplifting, assault, burglary, runaways, possession of tobacco - the whole gamut,'' Mr. Hector says.
In addition, the mayor says, merchants report fewer thefts, the number of parents attending parent-teacher conferences and other school activities is noticeably up, and more adults are volunteering for parent-effectiveness courses.
Also, there have been no new citations since April - indicating that parents are taking more responsibility for those children age 17 and younger covered by Silverton's ordinance.
''I think it's absolutely clear that there's a correlation,'' says the mayor.
Other states, including California, Virginia, and Alabama, now order parents to compensate crime victims, pay for cleanup of graffiti, or pay fines for offenses their children commit. But Oregon is the first to mandate classes designed to make them better parents, thus expanding the notion of legal responsibility.
Wake-up call to parents
State Rep. Mike Lehman (D), author of Oregon's new law, says the idea is ''simply to get parents involved with their kids.''
''This is not meant to be punitive,'' says Mr. Lehman, the father of 10- and 12-year-old sons. ''Our goal is that no parent ever be fined under this bill.
''It's meant to get parents to pay attention to their children,'' he adds, ''and to make resources available to parents who want to know the proper way to supervise their child.''
But whose job is it to decide the ''proper way'' to supervise children, especially adolescents who spend more and more time away from parental view? And don't laws like this pose a philosophical conflict for those advocating a get-tough approach to crime while also opposing big-government interference in family issues?
''I know the [Oregon] law doesn't list the things that parents should do, but I wouldn't be surprised if it played out that way,'' Professor Shapiro says.
''I think it's unconstitutional,'' says Jossi Davidson, an attorney representing several Silverton parents charged under that city's law. ''Sure, the government needs to be able to regulate parenting. But between the poles of abuse on the one hand and neglect on the other, parents need to be free to make their own parenting decisions as they see fit.
''What this law purports to do is make all of those decisions subject to some judge's notion of what's good parenting,'' Mr. Davidson says.
Constitutional questions aside, some critics doubt the law's effectiveness outside of Silverton.
''Maybe as a political statement it's good to have,'' says Gerald Arenberg, a police officer for more than 40 years before retiring to join the board of directors of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. ''But I can't see it having a tremendous effect on crime.''
The Justice Department reported last week that juvenile arrests for major violent crimes grew 55 percent between 1983 and 1992. In response to such figures, Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri will introduce on Capitol Hill ''The Violent and Hard-Core Juvenile Offender Reform Act of 1995.'' on Sept. 15.
Under this bill, states receiving federal grants to fight crime must prosecute as adults those as young as 14 who commit murder, armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, forceable rape, or drug trafficking.
Big city challenge
Some wonder whether laws like Oregon's will work in big cities, where juvenile crimes can be more serious than petty theft, underage smoking, or breaking curfew.
''It probably isn't going to dissuade some 17-year-old kid from doing a drive-by shooting,'' Hector says. ''But our thinking is that that 17-year-old might have a two-year-old brother or sister, and there's still hope for those younger kids if the parents will get involved.''