Originally created 08/13/97

Savannah may soon make parents responsible for their kids' crimes



SAVANNAH - Two years ago, Silverton, Ore., leaders decided to try a new tactic in the war on juvenile crime by making parents responsible for the actions of their children.

That same tactic soon may be used in Savannah, where the city council is prepared to enact an ordinance Thursday based on one in Silverton.

The Oregon city of 7,000 people found itself with minors committing misdemeanors - violating curfew, running away and shoplifting - but never going to court because prosecutors were tied up with major crimes.

"We sent the kids the wrong message," said Lt. Jerry Stearns of the Silverton Police Department, basically that they could get away with crime.

To curb the problem, the city passed a parental responsibility ordinance, the first in the nation. When a juvenile commits a misdemeanor, the parents are notified that any further criminal acts will include a citation against the parents.

The Savannah City Council will consider a similar - but stronger - ordinance. Instead of citations, parents will face misdemeanor charges.

Local parents, teachers and elected officials are hoping for the same response as received in Silverton.

"Our resource officer working in the high school heard comments like, `No way, I'm not going to get my parents in trouble,' " Stearns said. "You don't see kids hanging out on the streets. Parents are questioning kids about where they are going, who they are going with."

Chatham County commissioners put a similar ordinance on the books last year, but it has yet to be put into practice.

"It's something we have in our arsenal but haven't used yet," said County Police Chief Thomas Sprague. A crime must be committed to trigger the ordinance, and "we haven't had a case where it quite fit in."

Once the city ordinance also is enacted, Savannah-Chatham Schools Superintendent Patrick Russo thinks both ordinances will provide the next evolution of safe schools and communities.

"If students misbehave, if they do not adhere to the guidelines and curfews of the city and county ... the parent of this child is going to be held responsible for what this child does," he said. "There will be something on the books to allow the school system to pursue charges against the parent."

What children are taught in school doesn't matter if parents don't reinforce values and expectations at home, Russo said.

"If we don't have the assistance of the parents," he said, "we're fighting a losing battle."

Russo seems to have many parents on his side.

"It's truly what any good parents should be doing without being mandated," parent Karen Pannell said of the ordinance. "It seems like any responsible parents should take those initiatives themselves, to want their children to be safe. Perhaps this is way of reminding people these are our responsibilities."

Responsibility is the key, agrees Sue Cox, another parent.

"We need something when first-graders are bringing guns to school and parents are not taking responsibility," she said.

The threat of jail time or a fine may be what parents need to get involved, she said. "Sometimes fear is a great motivator."

Parents also need to look at what they expect of the schools, said parent James DeLorme.

"We've asked that teachers and administrators be parents, policemen and social workers," he said.

Instead, parents need to send their children to school prepared to learn, to accept authority figures and function in a way that doesn't violate the rights of others, DeLorme said.

But for the ordinance to have any effect, it has to be applied with vigor, he said. "If it's not going to be enforced, don't put it on the books."

Juvenile Court Judge John Beam agrees enforcement will determine if the ordinance has any effect.

"Just because it's there doesn't mean it will have a deterrent effect," he said.

That also is the feeling of Hugh Golson, a teacher who heads the Chatham Association of Educators, a local teacher's union.

"It's only as good as how aggressive they want to enforce the law," he said.

While city and county police would file the charges, the cases would come before Recorder's Court.

Judges Larry Dillon and LeRoy Burke hold three misdemeanor sessions each week, handling about 8,500 cases each year, not including the 50,000 traffic citations and other violations.

No one has any idea how many cases might be filed under the new ordinance, but one or two a month, or 20-30 a year, "are not a significant increase at all," said Brian Hart, the court administrator.

Some observers have questioned whether detailing a child's offense during prosecution of a parent would violate the youngster's privacy rights. But Beam notes that child abuse cases are discussed in open court.

"It's the parent who is being prosecuted," he said. "There's not an issue of confidentiality."