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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2006

Parents law misses mark for judge

Agree or disagree: Parents should be responsible for their children.

Yeah, thought so. It's hard to find anyone who won't endorse "parental responsibility."

Still, Police Chief Jack Smith's proposed parental-responsibility ordinance shouldn't sail through City Council without debate. Debate might be the best thing this well-intended but ill-conceived suggestion has to offer.

If we starting talking about holding parents accountable, we might eventually talk about strengthening families, and that's the better topic.

In Columbus tomorrow, there's a conference to discuss juvenile justice reform in Ohio. The scheduled keynote speaker is Shay Bilchik.

Mr. Bilchik heads the Child Welfare League of America. He's also a former U.S. Justice Department official, the one-time honcho of its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

I belabor Mr. Bilchik's credentials so that his comments get the weight they deserve.

While he's too savvy to discuss a legislative proposal he's never laid eyes on, Mr. Bilchik was glad to speak in broader terms. His cautionary note should make council think twice about the police chief's ideas for handling juvenile crime.

"If you're going to create accountability in the penal code," Mr. Bilchik said, "you should also be looking at a more holistic approach."

And any new laws that get drafted, he added, are better aimed at parents "missing in action." Don't criminalize parents who try but fail.

"You have a spectrum of possibilities here [for] parents who have effectively abandoned the role of parenting [but] what about the broader notion of a parenting environment that really helps parents?" he said.

Citing the Lucas County Juvenile Court, Mr. Bilchik added: "Judge [James] Ray is already involved in exactly this effort, with the Parents Center they're setting up."

Oddly enough, though, the county's top juvenile official - and recent past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges - learned of Chief Smith's idea in the newspaper.

Had anyone besides me asked, Judge Ray would've told them "there are plenty of laws on the books to do exactly what is being suggested."

His court, for example, already hears "a lot" of cases against parents charged with contributing to the delinquency or unruliness of their own kids.

As for the law Chief Smith wants, Judge Ray noted "there's a lot of research that says delinquent behavior is not reduced by punishing the parents."

Still, he's open to discussion. The first thing he'd like to discuss is why police think we need another law.

"You know, there's a strong emphasis at the federal level to address gangs so this may be something motivated by dollars," Judge Ray said. "Nobody's talked to us, so we don't know what it's about."

But how insightful could any measure against juvenile crime be when the very people who handle juvenile crime weren't even consulted?



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