Locking Up Parents Is Not The Answer For Juvenile Crime

October 27, 2010  |  

A Detroit prosecutor presented a proposal to the City Council last week that would require parents to spend three days in jail if they failed to attend at least one parent-teacher meeting per school year.

Yeah I’m sure that is going to go over well.

District Attorney Kym Worthy has a belief that the majority of crime, which is committed by juveniles, generally has two things in common: The child has a history of truancy and the parents or parent is not involved in the child’s education.  Can’t argue with the D.A. on either of those points.  Worthy’s response to the epidemic is requiring a parent to attend at least one parent-teacher conference a year or risk facing up to three days in jail.

Clearly, the proposal was drafted out of pure distress. Detroit has been, for a very long time, suffering from a host of social issues. One in every third person in Detroit lives below the federal poverty line – of that, almost half are children.  The unemployment rate hovers somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. As it stands now, Detroit has a drop out rate of almost 70 percent and an illiteracy rate nearing 50 percent.

So in some respects you do have to admire Worthy as her goal is to get families to realize that education is probably the only way to improve their situation in life – if not, than these kids will end up paying the cost in the future.

Other places across the country, such as San Francisco and Orange County, Florida, have similar programs to deal with truancy. In one of the most extreme cases, a single mother served 108 days in jail, one day for every day of school her two sons missed, one of them is a fifth grader at Pinar Elementary School in East Orange County.

Yet as noble as an effort Worthy is putting forth, at some point, we have to realize that we can’t legislate parental interest in children’s education. Moreover, the solution to every single social problem can’t be to “lock them all up.”

It’s hard to advocate for mandatory prison time for parents in a state, which is already ranked 9th in the country for incarceration rates, locking up over 500 per 100,000 people.  And as the population of that the city had decreased, so has the tax revenue, which has usually supported schools and other services. Just last year, the city had to close 29 schools and an additional 32 schools were closed this summer.

It would appear that at least part of the problem is the Detroit Public School System itself, which seems to be very troubled and has a problem justifying its own value. Moreover, turning teachers into police officers only helps to create an even more adversarial relationship between parents and schools – not to mention puts the safety of already overextended teachers and staff at risk.

The reasons parents are not showing up needs to be addressed. Indifference towards the importance of education is, of course, apparent but there are other root causes, which also need to be addressed.  And while invention is necessary, mandatory incarceration can only prove to be a slippery slope.  What’s next: locking parents up if their kids fail a class, wears the wrong clothing to school or receives poor scores on their standardize test?

Perhaps the solution centers on required or mandatory parenting classes, phone calls and home visits by school staff (remember when schools used to do those?), followed by incentives, which wouldn’t be hard to do in a place like Detroit, where so many people go without.

Using the threats of incarceration to solve all our problems has never been proven to be successful, just look how it has worked with the war on drugs. Even Worthy admits that this controversial proposal should be used to get the conversation started about the poor state of affairs around education in the city.

If the proposal is passed, Worthy said that her office would work with service groups to ensure prosecuted parents have resources to get more involved. Teachers would work to accommodate parents’ schedules and the school would send reminders. Well, why aren’t they doing that to begin with?

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