Soundings

Peter Reinharz
Sins of the Sons
Summer 1997

Though the leadership in the State Legislature has yet to agree on a package of juvenile-justice reforms, it does look as if real change is finally on its way. In Albany these days one hears far less evasive double-talk about the "root causes" of delinquency. "Accountability" is the new buzzword—and not just for the offenders themselves. Some of the reforms on the table would take the necessary step of holding parents accountable as well. After all, if parents refuse to rein in their delinquent kids, they too should suffer some penalty.

What sorts of sanctions should parents face under a reformed Family Court Act? They should have to pay the medical costs of their children's victims and restitution for damage. They should have to participate with their offspring in counseling programs meant to discourage future encounters with the law. And they should lose entitlements, like the right to live in public housing, when their children are found guilty of committing violent crimes.

Even with the new attitude in Albany, it is unlikely that all these proposals will make it into law. Still, there are ways to use existing law to inject far more parental accountability into juvenile justice in New York. Family Court judges often release an accused offender into the custody of a parent (or other responsible adult) after informing both of them of the trial date. Some 10 percent of these juvenile offenders then fail to appear, and the court issues a warrant for their arrest. Recently the city's Corporation Counsel has also been requesting a warrant for the parent who promised to bring the offender to court. Brought before a Family Court judge on a warrant, the parent must explain the youth's failure to appear and his own inability to control the child.

Has hauling mom or pop into court in handcuffs worked? In every case so far, once a parent has been forcefully reminded of his responsibilities, the offending youth has appeared at later court hearings.

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