Alabama’s most affluent suburb, Mountain Brook (home of Natalee Holloway, whose apparent abduction and murder in Aruba was a Greta Van Susteren / Nancy Grace panic-TV staple), is considering adopting a new “open house party” ordinance. It would fine homeowners when two or more underage people drink alcohol in the house. On the third offense, the law provides that the homeowners would be guilty of a misdemeanor. Homeowners, by which we really mean parents, would be criminally liable even if they were unaware that kids were drinking in their homes. They are strictly liable – guilty even if they had no intent to break the law, had no knowledge it was being broken, and were not even negligent in allowing the infraction to occur.
In my juvenile justice class, I ask whether it is really possible for parents to control their kids’ behavior. Inevitably, most people say no. “You can’t control what kids will do.” I then ask about the efficacy of a statute holding parents financially liable for all damage caused by their children. Most students think this would provide only a limited incentive to control children. In the end, my students insist, kids are out of parents’ control. Then I push a step further: what if the parents are held criminally liable for whatever crimes the child commits. If a child commits a burglary, the parent is guilty. When little Eddie Jr. robs and kills an old lady walking down the street, Eddie Sr. spends the rest of his life in the pokey. At this point, students see that parents probably can significantly control a child’s conduct. Unfortunately, with such high stakes, they may resort to abusive behavior, such as beating their children or imprisoning them in their bedrooms.
There are really two different issues here. The first is effectiveness. Can a strict liability ordinance punishing parents really affect the conduct of a child? The answer, it seems to me, is yes – provided that the stakes are high enough. I’m not sure that Mountain Brook has raised the stakes very high and a statute that does so may generate unacceptably high collateral costs. The second question is moral. Should a parent be liable for the acts of the child even she worked hard to prevent them? This is tough for me. If a parent is not negligent – she does every single thing a reasonable person would do to keep her child in check – I think it’s hard to justify punishing her. What more can we ask of a parent? On the other hand, perhaps we want parents to go beyond mere reasonable behavior. The reasonable parent seeking to prevent open house parties will lock up the booze and perhaps install a nanny-cam to monitor the house. But maybe we want parents to go further; maybe we want parents to construct their entire lives around teaching children to behave in good ways. Perhaps a strict liability law is really trying to change overall parenting strategies. Mountain Brook wants parents to teach a different value set from early on: don’t disobey parents, follow house rules, don’t break the law.
I doubt the Mountain Brook ordinance will change behavior too much. Rational Brookies will understand that every home is entitled to two open house parties without serious consequence. And I suspect that the local judges will be loathe to burden a community leader with a criminal record, even if little Eddie got a bit wild while his folks were at the beach. But start holding parents strictly liable for the crimes of their kids, and I suspect you’d see a whole new construction of parenthood. And some interesting collateral effects. Parents would quickly give up custody of their “problem children” – burdening the state’s family protection office. On the other hand, some people might think twice about having children before they were able to properly supervise them.
Is strict liability for parents a good idea? I’m not sure that socially tolerable provisions will work, or that effective provisions are socially tolerable. But it’s certainly worth a conversation.