Parental Responsibility for a Child's Criminal Actions

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Junior and some of his high school pals broke into a neighbor's garage and made off with some expensive tools. They got busted and now, on top of the headache of hiring a lawyer for junior, you find yourself charged with violating your parental duty to supervise your child. But you did not even learn of the theft until the cops showed up two days later. Can you be convicted? The answer is yes.

This article discusses laws making parents responsible for children's crimes. For information about parents' civil liability for children's actions, see Parents' Civil Liability for a Child's Act.

Parental Rights, Parental Responsibilities

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that parents have a fundamental right to rear their children without undue interference by the government. (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925.) But, in the same decision, the Court upheld the power of states to force parents to ensure that their children attend school. So, parenting is by no means an unfettered right and, as with many rights, it carries significant legal responsibilities.

What Are Parental Responsibility Laws?

Each state imposes legal responsibility on parents and legal guardians for the delinquent and criminal acts of minors in their charge. Parental responsibility statutes have been in effect in the U.S. for at least 100 years. Many arose out of or supplemented laws that prohibit contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Such laws rest on the assumption that minors commit crimes because their parents have failed to exercise proper control and oversight, and that the way to inspire parents to exert the necessary control is to punish them if they don't.

Public demand for parental responsibility laws has fluctuated over time. The Columbine High School shootings and other similar incidents have inspired state and local lawmakers to enact parental responsibility laws. In the late 1980s, California and other states passed laws aimed at reducing what the states saw as an epidemic of gang-related crime by youths.

Failure to Prevent Crimes by Children

Most parental responsibility statutes punish parents for what they haven't done, rather than what they have done. The laws make parents criminally liable because they have not fulfilled their parental duty to keep their kids from breaking the law. So, the parent of the juvenile garage thief is not charged for the theft but for letting his child commit it by failing to exercise proper parental control.

Status Crimes

Some parental responsibility laws hold parents legally accountable for allowing their children to engage in conduct that would not be illegal if done by an adult, such as skipping school (truancy) or breaking curfew laws. Truancy and curfew violations are considered "status crimes," because they penalize conduct that is only illegal based on the status (in this case, age) of the person engaged in the conduct. As mentioned above, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the power of states to compel school attendance. And parental responsibility to make sure children attend school is an "affirmative duty," meaning that a parent has to actively ensure their attendance. (An exception to truancy laws has been made for home schooling that meets state standards.)

Courts have also upheld parental responsibility under curfew laws applied to minors, based on the vulnerability of children and the public interest in protecting their welfare.

Contributing Crimes

Any adult, not merely a parent or guardian, may be prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of a minor if the adult encourages or induces the minor to engage in criminal activity. For example, an adult (whether a parent of a child or not) who furnishes a minor with alcohol will be prosecuted under state law penalizing contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Unlike parental responsibility for status crimes (which is generally based on negligent parenting), parental liability under contributing crimes is based on the parent (or other adult) having actually enabled or induced the minor's illegal conduct.

Do Parental Responsibility Laws Work?

Studies conducted in Oregon, California, New York, and elsewhere suggest that parental responsibility laws are both infrequently enforced and of dubious effect when enforced. The laws are viewed by parents' rights groups and others as largely symbolic. Some convicted parents have challenged the constitutionality of these laws, but courts have ruled in most cases that the state's compelling interest in child and public welfare justifies the laws. (Williams v. Garcetti, 853 P.2d 507 (Cal. 1993).) A common argument by parents is that they are being prosecuted for conduct they did not condone or even know about. These arguments are generally unsuccessful, as long as the statute punishes parents for conduct by their children that a reasonably attentive parent should have known about and prevented.

How is Violation of Parental Responsibility Law Punished?

Punishment varies from state to state, but state and local parental responsibility laws often carry two types of sanctions: punitive and educational.

Criminal Penalties

In most jurisdictions with parental responsibility laws, a violation of the law is a misdemeanor and a person charged with the crime faces up to one year in prison, a fine in the range of $1,000, or both.

Mandatory Parenting Skills Training

In addition to a prison sentence and fine, many states also require convicted parents to enter educational programs. California and other states have included mandatory parenting skills training among the sanctions a court may impose on parents whose children have broken the law. State courts have upheld these laws. (Williams v. Garcetti, 853 P.2d 507 (1993).) In fact, some states have enacted parental responsibility laws as vehicles to order parents into skills training, rather than to jail them for their children's conduct.

A Perennial Trend

The enactment and enforcement of parental responsibility laws rise and fall in response to media frenzies over high-profile juvenile crimes, changing degrees of concern about public morality, and other social factors. But, anyone charged with violating a parental responsibility law must take the matter seriously because it is a criminal charge and may result in jail time, a fine, an order to undergo training, or all of the above. And, it is certainly a sign that the charged parent's child needs more supervision. See an experienced criminal defense lawyer in your area if you have questions about parental responsibility laws.

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