Despite the growing consensus that mass incarceration is not the way to cure all social ills, there seems to be a new trend toward prosecuting parents who fall short of prevailing ideals.
You don't have to be a parent, as I am, to understand the good intentions behind efforts to hold parents accountable for taking good care of their children. But we also have to ask what kind of care is best and whether the criminal justice system is always the best decider.
Take for example the case of Debra Harrell, who was jailed and charged recently with "unlawful conduct toward a child" in North Augusta, S.C., according to news reports. Her crime: leaving her 9-year-old daughter alone to play with a few dozen other kids in a local park while Harrell went to work.
Like a lot of parents, I wouldn't have left my kid unsupervised at that age, no matter how safe the neighborhood may be. But, considering how many other parents were AWOL when I took my son to our neighborhood parks, that question is subject to endless debate.
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Freelance writer Kim Brooks found that to be true, as she recounted in a Salon article about her own arrest. She left her 4-year-old son in the car alone for a few minutes while she bought a pair of headphones. Although she didn't deem that move to be unsafe or unusual, a "good Samaritan," as she put it, videotaped her offense.
"I'm glad we live in a world where people are watching out for kids," she recalled her lawyer consoling her. "But in your case, what happened wasn't malicious. It wasn't neglectful. It was a temporary lapse in judgment. This is what we need to stress."
She eventually agreed to do 100 hours of community service and to take parenting classes.
Her case also brought a lot of sympathy from Lenore Skenazy, a former New York Sun columnist who made a national splash with a 2008 column about her decision to let her 9-year-old son take the subway by himself. The resulting flood of praise and outrage (she embraced the title "World's Worst Mom" for a syndicated TV series she hosted in 2012) moved her to found the Free Range Kids movement dedicated, in her words, to "fighting the belief that our kids are in constant danger."
Letting your kids roam free helps them learn and grow, Skenazy argues, unlike the "bubble-wrap kids" raised by us more paranoid parents.
To me that view sounds more appropriate to the small-town world of a half-century ago in which I grew up. Today's world is so immersed in horror stories about abducted children and kids dying in locked cars that merely leaving children unattended can be grounds for arrest.
The "criminalization of parenting" is what libertarian-leaning Washington Post blogger Radley Balko calls these cases. Balko deplores the increasing use of the criminal justice system to address problems that used to be handled by families, friends, churches and other community institutions.
I suspect that our society's faith in those traditional institutions has declined with the rising, widely held suspicion that those institutions are under siege and breaking down.
That fear helps to explain why Tennessee has taken the extreme and, I believe, dangerous step of passing the nation's first state law that specifically criminalizes taking drugs while pregnant.
Only a few days after the law went into effect on July 1, Monroe County police arrested Mallory Loyola, 26, after both she and her newborn infant tested positive for meth, according to police reports.
There's no question that the law is well intended. For some drug offenders, arrest may be the last-resort way to get them into the treatment they need. But a new danger to unborn children rises when the emphasis on prosecution deters women with drug and alcohol problems from seeking the prenatal care that they need.
In recent years we have seen a broad spectrum of politicians and activists -- from the libertarian right to the progressive left -- push for alternative sentencing that reduces the expensive mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, mostly in the government-sponsored war on drugs. We also need to look seriously for alternatives to prosecution that can avoid a new war on parents.
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