Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates held a news conference this month in which he seemed to celebrate the arrest of a group of children allegedly connected to a carjacking ring operated out of a “clubhouse.” Putting aside whether that is something our community should celebrate, Bates had a message for parents: “If you remember one thing from this press conference,” he said, “just remember two words: parental accountability.”

He warned parents, “You may need a lawyer, because you could potentially get charged, because you’re not doing your job under the law.” Bates said he expected parents to know where their children were at all hours of the day and night. Even more remarkably, he advised parents to call the police on their own children if those children are not following the law.

Bates then said his office is committed to disrupting the school-to-prison-pipeline. He declared, “Our young people are screaming out for help.” His solution is threatening that parents and guardians would be charged with “contributing to delinquency of a minor,” a crime punishable by up to three years of incarceration.

After the news conference, a group of University of Baltimore law students were asked whether they thought this proposal would solve the problem of juvenile crime. Unanimously, the answer was “no.”

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Our students’ response is not conjecture, it is supported by research. It’s also common sense. Threatening to punish parents for their children’s actions is pointless, because much of this is out of their hands. Many parents are struggling, working long hours or multiple jobs, and cannot provide the level of supervision they might want. As summer approaches, parents who cannot afford summer camp will be forced to make hard choices.

There is no shortage of data detailing the negative impacts of parental incarceration on children — for the rest of their lives. In short, the plan is illogical, cruel and counterproductive.

Despite being on a path as future lawyers, our students expressed the reality of the relationship between parents and their kids. The students all admitted that in their youth, they, like most young people, had engaged in behavior that could have gotten them into trouble: sneaking out, lying to their parents, skipping school and even engaging in punishable offenses such as underage drinking, illegal drug use and shoplifting. Their parents were mostly unaware of these behaviors. How many of us can say we didn’t act out the same way when we were young?

Bates’ proposal to charge parents who “contribute to” their children’s acts also is problematic because the law that would apply is incredibly vague. While some cases, such as a parent buying a gun for a child, might seem more clear-cut, numerous other scenarios could fall under this law.

Imagine a parent who works overnight to put food on the table, and their teenager commits a crime. Or what about a parent who leaves the keys to the car at home, and the underage child takes the car and gets into an accident? What happens to a parent who drops their child off at the mall and the child shoplifts? Conceivably, these parents could be charged.

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Prosecutors with virtually unlimited discretion get to decide. And what we know about vague laws is that they are most likely to be used against those with the least power — people who are marginalized due to race and class.

If we really want to respond to those youths who are screaming out for help, we should offer solutions that support them and their families, not threaten greater harm. Research shows that to reduce undesirable behavior in children, we need to address chronic absenteeism through programs such as our Tackling Chronic Absenteeism Project; improve educational and employment opportunities for young people; invest in violence interruption; create more mentoring programs; and teach them conflict-resolution skills.

Further, we need to provide concrete supports for parents, ensure that child care is affordable, and focus on creating well-paid employment opportunities and support programs that put money into parents’ pockets, like the Baltimore Baby Bonus.

Baltimore is at a crossroads, where we need to decide who we are as we determine how to move forward. We do not want to be part of a community whose response to families in crisis is to lock them up.

Shanta Trivedi ( is an assistant professor and faculty director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Aubrey Edwards-Luce ( is the center’s executive director.

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