Judicial Notebook

Philadelphia was in the national spotlight last summer because of juvenile crime and the mayor's response to it. Specifically, groups of teens were participating in "flash mobs" organized through social media and text messages.

These mobs of teenagers, sometimes meeting without a goal in mind, ended up being involved in various illegal activities, such as assaulting people at random or stealing from stores in Philadelphia's tourist and shopping districts. The mayor, Michael A. Nutter, spoke out sharply against these youth and their behaviors. He also took aim at the teenagers' parents, saying that being a "human ATM" or "sperm donor" will not suffice for being a parent, and that parents "need to get a hold of [their] kids before we have to" (Simon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 7). Nutter emphasized that he believes that problems like these flash mobs are stemming from the homes and parents need to take more responsibility for their children (CNN.com, Aug. 9).

Nutter certainly has the law on his side. Philadelphia, like many other cities, can impose penalties on the parents when their children are out past the city curfew. In Philadelphia, the parents receive a warning for the first violation, up to a $150 fine for a second violation, and $300 to $500 fines for subsequent violations. After two or more violations, each repeat offense can result in up to a $300 fine and/or up to 90 days in jail for the parents.

A number of other cities have similar laws that penalize parents for their children's actions. A few of these municipal ordinances similar to Philadelphia's curfew ordinance have been challenged in state courts, but for the most part the laws are upheld or only portions of the laws are struck down. One court even noted that it was unable to determine if the laws were truly an effective use of the state's police power because the court had no information about the laws' effectiveness. In other words, there was no research to demonstrate the law's effect.

This political outcry against parents, the municipal ordinances reflecting that disdain and the courts' need for empirical research raise important questions that psychologists can help answer. In particular, will punishing (or threatening to punish) parents make parents more involved and therefore deter juvenile crime? Will these laws have a disproportionate effect on minorities and single parents, in particular single mothers? What effect do these laws have on juveniles' sense of personal responsibility?

Psychology research and practice has certainly demonstrated the importance of the parent-child relationship. We know that different parenting styles and attachment are related to various outcomes. But, no matter how much we know about the role parents play, we know that research cannot perfectly predict outcomes because of the innumerable other factors that influence children. And we do not know if punishing the parents would have the intended effect of reducing juvenile crime.

Our lab and a few other scholars have been examining issues related to parental responsibility laws. Mostly, we have focused on the legal analysis of the laws, the public support of such laws, juveniles' own reactions to the laws, and the media attention to parental responsibility. In general, the public does not enthusiastically support parental responsibility laws and their underlying concepts. Yet, no one has done a widespread empirical examination of the effectiveness of these laws. If city officials were amenable to researchers conducting studies in their cities and providing access for researchers, such an examination would provide much-needed information in determining the wisdom of parental responsibility laws.

Philadelphia's mayor is correct that teens like those involved in his city's flash mobs "need to make better decisions" (CNN.com, Aug. 9), but without the empirical research, it is very difficult to know if punishing the teens' parents will result in those better decisions.


"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).