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Could holding parents criminally responsible curb the country’s gun violence epidemic?

Jennifer Crumbley (C), 43, the mother of accused Oxford High School gunman Ethan Crumbley, listens while on the stand in the courtroom of Oakland County Court in Pontiac, Michigan during her trial on four counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 2, 2024. Ethan Crumbley, 17, her son, is serving a life sentence for the November 30, 2021 shooting at Oxford High School which left four students dead and six students and a teacher wounded. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
Jennifer Crumbley (C), 43, the mother of accused Oxford High School gunman Ethan Crumbley, listens while on the stand in the courtroom of Oakland County Court in Pontiac, Michigan during her trial on four counts of involuntary manslaughter on February 2, 2024. Ethan Crumbley, 17, her son, is serving a life sentence for the November 30, 2021 shooting at Oxford High School which left four students dead and six students and a teacher wounded. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Jennifer and James Crumbley were found guilty of manslaughter for a mass school shooting carried out by their son.

Could parental accountability curb the U.S. gun violence epidemic? What else could parents be liable for?


Eve Brank, professor of psychology and law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She’s studied the history and application of parental responsibility laws in America.

Ekow N. Yankah, the Thomas M. Cooley professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan. His work focuses on questions of political and criminal theory and the justifications of punishment.

Also Featured

Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy for Everytown for Gun Safety.

Cheree Peoples, a mother who was charged with a criminal misdemeanor under California’s truancy law.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On November 30th, 2021, then-15-year-old Ethan Crumbley fatally shot four students and injured seven others at Oxford High School in Oxford, Michigan. In December of 2023, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Ethan Crumbley became the first minor to receive an original life sentence without parole following a 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found that juvenile life sentences were excessive for all but the rarest cases.

Well, that’s not the only precedent set in the Crumbley case. On December 3, 2021, prosecutor Karen D. McDonald made this announcement.

KAREN D. MCDONALD: Today, I’m announcing charges against the shooter’s parents, Jennifer and James Crumbley.

BORIS SANCHEZ: Good morning and welcome to your New Day. It is Saturday, December 4. I’m Boris Sanchez.

CHRISTI PAUL: And I’m Christi Paul. We begin with breaking news this morning, Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of the Michigan high school shooting suspect are in police custody right now. This was after the pair evaded authorities for hours after they were charged with involuntary manslaughter yesterday. Police say they were found early this morning.

CHAKRABARTI: Prosecutors argued that James and Jennifer Crumbley knew their son was struggling with mental illness and instead of getting him help — they bought him a gun.

In fact, just hours before the shooting, Jennifer and James Crumbley were called into school because of a violent drawing Ethan made on a math assignment. It was of a gun and a wounded man alongside the phrase, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me. My life is useless.”

The school advised the Crumbleys to take Ethan home that day. They did not. Here’s assistant prosecutor Joseph Shada in a pre-trial hearing:

JOSEPH SHADA: They knew he had a fascination with guns. They knew that he was just gifted this gun days earlier. They knew of the graphic drawing that he had just made.

CHAKRABARTI: So Ethan went back to class. The gun was inside his backpack. Just hours later, he used it to kill his classmates.

SHANNON SMITH: I will concede that these parents made tremendously bad decisions. I will concede that these parents were ill-equipped in many ways to handle various factors in this case. But criminal trials for criminal culpability are not based on whether parents make the right decisions or do the right things.

CHAKRABARTI: That is defense attorney Shannon Smith from a pre-trial hearing in March of 2023. James and Jennifer Crumbley’s defense team had filed a motion to get their charges dismissed.

SMITH: The problem is, is that extending that kind of liability for failure to open a backpack or failure to give a hug or failure to do one of those things ends up opening this unlimited liability to every parent across the state. If I have a child that goes and has sex with an underage girl, do I as the parent then become liable for criminal sexual conduct because my child used the cell phone I technically own, drove the car I technically own, and I knew my son had an affinity to like girls?

CHAKRABARTI: Smith argued that holding the Crumbleys criminally responsible for their son’s mass shooting opened the door to holding parents liable for any number of behaviors and choices made by their children. The three judge court debated that possibility throughout the hearing. Here’s Judge Christopher Murray.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: I think it is a valid concern about the precedent that this will establish because we know lawyers who are smart and crafty will use this case to argue something down the future that is not as compelling and lead to issues that you mentioned about parental, criminal responsibility for the intentional acts of their children. So it’s a good point and it’s hard to grapple with.

CHAKRABARTI: But Judge Murray was not alone. Judge Michael Riordan also worried that a kind of precedent could be set by this case.

MICHAEL RIORDAN: There’s nothing wrong with being interested in guns or letting children shoot. Heck, all these American Legion posts throughout the state have shooting classes for kids. You know, what’s the precedent we’re going to set here? You know, there are a lot of families with kids who might not be as stable as the parents would like them to be. What sign, what’s going to be the guidepost that we lay out for other cases to follow?

Is it the kid’s bullied at school, comes home complaining about that, lock up all the guns? Is it the kid seems down, make sure the kid doesn’t go to school? You know what message are we going to send with this case here?

CHAKRABARTI: Once again, that was from a pre-trial hearing where the Crumbleys tried to get their charges dismissed. They did not succeed, went to trial, and as you heard earlier, Jennifer and James Crumbley were both found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Their sentencing is set for April 9. They both face up to 15 years in prison.

So this question raised by the defense attorneys and grappled with by the judges about whether the Crumbley case could open the door to parents being held liable for a much broader range of children’s behavior, that’s what we want to look at today.

And joining us now is Eve Brank. She’s a professor of psychology and law at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Professor Brank, welcome to On Point.

EVE BRANK: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s start with how long such parental liability laws have been on the books. Where should we look to in U.S. history to first see them?

BRANK: Sure. Sure. And of course, this particular case obviously was involuntary manslaughter, so separate from what we know of our historical parental liability, parental responsibility laws. But we’ve had things, laws on the books for over a hundred years. You know, early 1900s, Colorado had our first contributing to the delinquency of a minor statute. And again, different from involuntary manslaughter, but certainly similar principles of holding parents accountable.

CHAKRABARTI: You’re right to point out the differences with the Crumbley case. And in fact, it is somewhat exceptional. So we will talk about what makes it exceptional a little bit later in the show. But tell me more about what happened in 1903 in Colorado.

BRANK: Sure. Sure. So they enacted a contributing to the delinquency of a minor statute, and these statutes are very very common today. We have them in, I think, all of our states. They apply not just to parents, but really any adults. And they require a mens rea, a mental state, of the adult. So the adults need to cause, induce, aid, encourage the delinquency of a minor. And so these were really the intent behind these usually are to protect youth from negative influences of adults.

So one of the classic examples that’s often provided is, you know, a parent or an adult having their children deliver their drugs for them. So trying to protect children really from bad adults.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, at the center of the Colorado’s decision in 1903, there seems to lie a question which is timeless, right? Because Ben Lindsay, who was the head of the juvenile court then, apparently a few years later in 1906, he just asks, “What could be simpler than to make this moral duty of parents a legal responsibility punishable by fine or imprisonment?” Talk about that.

BRANK: Right. So we’ve done some research on just long history of attaching parents’ behaviors to children’s behaviors, right? So you can go way back in history. You know, there’s even a Bible verse, a proverb about training up your child in the way they should go. This is not an uncommon idea, theory, throughout cultures and time that the behaviors of parents can result in behaviors of children. So we tie those two things together.  And as you noted, the Colorado judge focused on that, the moral duty of parents. That they should be raising their children appropriately.

CHAKRABARTI: But as you said, it seems that the 1903 law and the contributing to the delinquency of a minor law or rules were initially designed to protect kids from bad parents, right? But then, roughly in parallel, we also have the development of the juvenile court system. Is that right? Can you talk about that?

BRANK: Right. So the juvenile court is history of that is generally traced back to like 1899, first juvenile court. And this is where we really, the state became not only had a right, but also responsibility to intervene when family life did not assume the task of rearing the children appropriately. So we have this juvenile court and the initial intention was to rehabilitate children, rehabilitate them back into the folds of society when they committed acts that were outside what society expected.

CHAKRABARTI: So it seems like we have kind of two views on how to handle crimes committed by children, right? With the parenting laws, there’s the “Well, you have a moral responsibility to do the best you can.” But then also, it seems like the state at the same time — or states — were saying, “Well, there’s a lot of times in which parents can’t, they can’t do — not what’s expected of them — but no matter what they do, a child commits a crime, and that should be handled through juvenile justice.” So do those two things work in concert or in opposition to each other over time?

BRANK: That’s interesting. I think another piece of that that’s important, especially related to the case that you opened with, right, is that we have also decided to charge the some juveniles as adults.


BRANK: So we are saying that they are, they have committed some sort of act that makes them an adult in the eyes of the law. So that also seems to be somewhat in contrast to saying, you know, the parents should be responsible here.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. So, since 1903 then, are there different sort of forms of parental responsibility laws that have been developed in this country?

BRANK: Yeah, there are. And in fact, we, some research that we have done, we’ve categorized these laws really into three main types. The first is what we call parental civil liability. And so historically, parents could be civilly responsible for actions of their children, but all of the normal civil requirements applied. So there had to be, you know, they had to meet pretty high standards to be able to hold parents responsible. So most states enacted these parental civil liability laws. And so that parents are liable because they’re parent

And as a trade-off for how easy it was to prove this kind of case, most states imposed very low recovery limits. So most of them are around $5,000. And these can, states vary, but these are available for both personal injury and property damage.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Brank, so when these century-long now attempts at holding parents liable for their children’s behavior, when states turn to that as a source of criminal justice, are there certain commonalities in terms of what’s happening in society or around those particular crimes at that time?

BRANK: Right. So the three types that I was mentioning, the first was parental civil liability and those actually go back even farther, 1846 was the first one that we found. And then there’s contributing to the delinquency of a minor statutes that we talked about earlier, started again around 1903.

And then the parental involvement ones, the last category that I have categorized these laws into, these are really large and nebulous. And the first one we found was in 1994, and they just attempt to involve parents when their children are adjudicated delinquents. So these types of laws can have parents pay court costs, detention costs, restitution costs. And so in looking at the legislative intent around all of these laws, for the civil ones, you know, the legislatures talk about, “We need to have parents be able to pay for the damage.” And again, that was mid-1800s.

And the contributed to the delinquency of a minor, like you mentioned already, is really around the same time the juvenile court was established. And then that last form I talked about, just the general parental involvement, that was around 1994. So, we saw a real fear about juvenile crime at that time. And in the legislative intent that we found, the legislatures were talking about, you know, not only addressing the offending youth, but the dysfunctional family as well. And —

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. No, go ahead. Continue.

BRANK: Oh. And the themes that we saw in that legislative intent really focused on blame, responsibility and punishment. So those were the words that were used most frequently by the legislatures in talking about that last form of law.

CHAKRABARTI: The last form. Okay. So depending on the form of law, the intent could either be deterrence or punishment, right? That’s what it sounds like.

BRANK: Right. Sure.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, I want to kind of link this back to the case, the Crumbley case that we’re talking about. Because there are lots of people out there who say that it was appropriate for prosecutors to hold the Crumbleys criminally accountable for the mass shooting.

Here’s Nick Suplina, Senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, and that is the gun safety advocacy group. And he said the guilty verdict in the Crumbley case sends a clear message that parents have a legal responsibility to securely store guns in the home.

NICK SUPLINA: Three in four school shootings are committed with a gun from the home of parents or close relatives. We estimate there are 4.6 million American children who live in homes where at least one firearm is kept loaded and unlocked. In a survey, 70% of parents reported that adolescents could not independently access firearms in their household, but over a third of children in those households reported being able to access the firearm in less than five minutes.

There is a nation awash in unsecured firearms. That is a real danger. So a decision by parents to not securely store a firearm is not just a danger in the home. It’s also a danger in the community.

CHAKRABARTI: And then Suplina also made this point, that he and all the members of Everytown for Gun Safety hope that the outcome of the Crumbley case is not just punishment for the Crumbleys, but deterrence. Because they have seen it work in other forms of household safety issues.

SUPLINA: There was a time where a parent might not really think about the unsupervised party at their home that serves alcohol to minors, right? Until there is a prosecution of parents for that party when a teenager is injured in a drunk driving accident, right? That is now a known thing among parents of adolescents, of a risk of having a party like that.

I think there’s an awareness now that if you own a pool, whatever the law requires you to do, a gate around that pool is the way to stop a child, maybe from a neighbor’s house from wandering in and drowning.

CHAKRABARTI: So Professor Brank, respond to that, the deterrence part of these parental liability laws. I think the two examples that Nick used there will ring true for almost everyone hearing. Because we’ve heard about, you know, pool safety cases, and I want to talk a lot about alcohol laws in just a moment, but your response first.

BRANK: Yeah. I, I mean, I think we all, you know, have this hope and belief that if parents knew they could be held legally responsible, they would do everything they could to make sure that the bad things wouldn’t happen. And, you know, for people who support these notions, I think there’s this underlying just world bias too, right? Where we like to believe that the world is just and fair. And then when something bad happens, like a kid committing a terrible crime, we believe there must be some reason, some explanation. You know, otherwise any child could do something horrible. And so we can blame the parents. Then that allows us to explain why this terrible thing happened and why it won’t happen in our own family.

CHAKRABARTI: I don’t understand what you mean. Can you clarify?

BRANK: Which part?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I mean, I guess what I’m saying is, does that mean that you don’t think that these laws are effective? Or that people are hoping against hope that behaviors can change? I’m not clear. Because I think, you know, around pool safety and alcohol in particular, behaviors have changed, if not by 100%, I’ll grant that.

BRANK: Right, okay. Yeah. So I think for me with these laws, I don’t know of any research that’s been specifically done to determine whether they will work the way we want them to work.

CHAKRABARTI: So there’s no empirical evidence, you’re saying, that they’re effective. Those variety of goals that we went over earlier.

BRANK: Right.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So then why do you think people keep — or states keep — going back to passing these new kinds of laws then?

BRANK: I think that gets into what I was saying a little bit ago with that, you know, we hope and believe that if parents knew then they would do everything they could. I think that that then, you know, has a couple assumptions in it that parents aren’t already doing everything they can for their children. And so that, that becomes difficult, right, to determine.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So here’s where maybe we have to step away a little bit from empirical evidence and the law, right? Because I mean, you’re exactly right that these laws are, they’re passed with the hope that behaviors can change, right? And so, you know, when you say that, you know, “we hope that if parents knew they would do everything that they could,” agreed, you know, 100%. But I think the reality is a lot of parents don’t do everything they could, even when they know. Right?

And so that, I think that is the place in which people are wondering, well, if a parent knows, let’s take alcohol, for example, that their kids and their kid’s circle of friends love to party. And they drink alcohol, et cetera. And it’s even happening in their house, and perhaps the parents feel safe that at least it’s happening under their roof so they can kind of monitor it or whatnot. But if they know that that kind of repeated behavior happens and the risks are drunk driving or sexual assault or whatever you can imagine. And they don’t say, “No. Don’t drink in the house.” I mean, isn’t there a place for society to say, “You knew, but you didn’t do everything you could. So someone has to be held liable. And we can’t hold the minor liable”?

BRANK: Yeah. I think, you know, some of our research that we’ve done looks at public opinion polling. And so when we ask when kids commit crimes, you know, who’s the most responsible after the teenager? And 69% of our respondents said the parents. So I think lots of people agree with that premise. And peers were a distant second at about only 22%. So I think there are lots of people who would agree with that.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. I guess, you know, there’s this really broad gray area in justice in America, the concept of justice, right? Because on the one hand, with juvenile justice, we’re moving slowly, but in the direction of, in more cases than in the past, we shouldn’t hold these kids on trial as adults, right? Because there’s all of this growing knowledge about prefrontal cortex development, lack of impulse control, all of these things.

But then, you know, we have this other track of harsh criminal punishments as well for kids. But then if we don’t, if we’re not saying, well, responsibility does not lie with the parents, it seems like there’s this giant area in which there’s no room for the justice system at all. And maybe that’s the way it has to be. I mean, what do you think?

BRANK: I know others would argue that maybe this isn’t a justice system issue, but more of a  services, help, rather than punishment. Are there things we can do to prevent, you know, ahead of terrible things like this happening? So —

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you, I was just responding to what you were saying.

BRANK: You’re okay, you’re okay. Yes, I think, I think that that could be one argument or one proposal would be to really just focus on prevention and services and help rather than on the punishment side.

CHAKRABARTI: Actually, I suppose I should ask you, we were talking about the existence of these laws for a century. How often are they actually used? How often are parents held liable for their children’s behavior?

BRANK: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, you know, I don’t know if we know exactly, but we’ve done some research where we actually asked police chiefs and district attorneys about their specific ordinances or municipal ordinances that are similar to these laws. And what we found was that they really were quite infrequently enforced.

CHAKRABARTI: Infrequently?

BRANK: Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, that’s interesting. In that survey, did you find out why? Did the chiefs or DAs tell you why they were infrequently enforced?

BRANK: Right, so some of the reasons were, you know, that they really didn’t think it would do any good. And these are some qualitative responses that we received. But they didn’t think it would do any good. There were other issues going on. The police would say it won’t actually go to trial, this won’t really be pursued. There’s too many other things to deal with. So, it just kind of really didn’t seem like it was exactly what it was. on their radar as the main tool to use.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so Professor Brank, hang on for just a second, because I’d like to bring Ekow N. Yankah into the conversation. Ekow’s a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan, and his work focuses on questions of political and criminal theory and justifications for punishment. Professor Yankah, welcome to On Point. Professor Yankah, are you there?

EKOW N. YANKAH: Thank you for having me. Can you hear me?

CHAKRABARTI: I can hear you now. Thanks so much. So let’s bring this back to the Crumbley case for a moment. Because it’s perhaps unique for several reasons. And I think it says a lot about how far parents need to go, or parental behavior has to go, before they’re held liable and also America’s relationship with guns in particular.

So, first of all, in the Crumbley case, as we talked about earlier, his parents had bought him the gun. They knew that he was suffering, you know, from some kind of mental distress. They were called in that day to take their son home. They chose not to. He was drawing violent pictures. They were in constant text messaging contact with him, et cetera.

Many people would say that, in fact, those circumstances are so extreme that it does justify holding them accountable. Because to my question earlier, his parents knew something bad could happen, but they did nothing. I mean, do you think that that’s what this case is proving? That it has to be so overt that parental action could have actually made a difference in stopping a mass shooting?

YANKAH: Well, so there’s a old legal phrase that bad facts make for bad law. And I actually don’t know if this is bad law. I don’t know how I would have voted. I think this case is incredibly painful. But what’s true about that legal saying is when you have facts that feel unique, that are gripping, that are painful, that end in this spectacularly painful way, a mass shooting in a high school in a small community that rips it apart, those are the moments that are going to make the law take these leaps. And sometimes we end up regretting those leaps.

Again, you’re absolutely right. These are extraordinary facts. As you said at the top of the interview, the parents were in the school hours before he starts shooting. And they have an opportunity to take him home, or even just tell the school he has a gun, and they don’t.

But to your point, the reason the phrase goes bad facts make bad law is because no sooner do you have a law or legal precedent on the books, then as some of your earlier commentators pointed out, that the prosecutor is going to use that precedent to push for the next prosecution, and just as importantly, the next plea bargain.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, the other person with us today is Professor Eve Brank. I didn’t quite hear her say that. I thought she said that the laws were enforced rather infrequently, actually, Professor Yankah.

YANKAH: Oh, sorry. No, you’re absolutely right. Professor Brank, I’ve really enjoyed listening to you and learned a lot. I meant you had mentioned from some of the judges that surrounded the case at the top of your broadcast.


YANKAH: It wasn’t surprising that judges who, I think the judge said clever lawyers, right? Judges who have prosecutors in front of them every day know that the moment you set a precedent out in the world, that precedent is going to be used to push for the next analogous case.

And I think just as importantly, we have to remember that the judges are only seeing a very small percentage of the cases that are in the world, right? So America’s criminal justice system is actually a plea bargain system. It’s hard to know the exact number, but people think it’s something like 95% of all cases are just pled out.


YANKAH: So, you know, one day you’ll have a parent who thinks, “I’m not at fault here.” But you’ll have a prosecutor who sits across from them and says, you know, “You can take the three years I’m offering you, or I’m going to try you for 10 or 15.” And no judge and no jury will ever get to weigh in on that case. So to your earlier question, I do think the extreme facts of this case were stunning and produced a change in law. But I think once the law is changed, it starts on its own path.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Well, I’m going to ask you for more evidence of that. Because I would say that what we heard from Shannon Smith, the Crumbleys’ defense attorney, was a defense attorney doing a good job, right? In terms of putting a fear in judges’ minds that, you know, if they choose to let this case go to trial, all of a sudden, parents are going to be held liable, as she says, for not giving their kids a hug or failure for opening a backpack. I mean, I think that’s a defense attorney basically misleading on how specious prosecutions can be, Professor Yankah.

YANKAH: Yeah, I mean, look, so the defense attorney’s job is to draw the slippery slope, and of course you’re right that one can make that look ridiculous. And as I say, I think this case was difficult enough, I don’t know how I would have voted. But I think the more similar case will be a child who perhaps is struggling with violence in their community. Or maybe your child runs with the wrong crowd as we used to say in an old fashioned way, or your child is struggling with alcohol or drug issues. I think that case doesn’t look nearly so exotic.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: If both of you could listen on with me, I want to take a minute to talk about the other end of the extreme when it comes to when states have looked to parents as criminally liable for their children’s behaviors. Because mass shootings are one thing, but we have states that have laws on the book that will hold parents liable for things like truancy.

So, for example, this is Cheree Peoples.

CHEREE PEOPLES: Good morning, you guys. It’s me. I’m just trying to get myself prepared for my day in court because I have to go to trial for truancy. You heard me, trial.

CHAKRABARTI: Cheree was arrested on April 18, 2013 in Orange County, California, because her 11-year-old daughter Shayla missed too much school. She’s made a bunch of YouTube videos about it, and in this one, Cheree describes exactly what happened.

PEOPLES: My son’s father woke me up after a long night of non-sleep, being up with my colicky son. “Cheree, Cheree, it’s somebody at the door for you!” And I thought he said the police. You know, when you half-sleep, half-up, you really not paying attention. And I go down the stairs and to my belief, it was two police officers in front of my door.

So they said, “Are you Cheree Peoples?” I said, “Yes.” And they told me I was under arrest for truancy for Shayla Rucker. I’m like, “Truancy for Shayla Rucker? Huh?” You know, my face just — it didn’t make sense to me. I just, I couldn’t put it together.

CHAKRABARTI: Months earlier, she’d met with her daughter’s school to go over Shayla’s 504 plan, that’s a specific learning plan designed for children with disabilities. Shayla has sickle cell anemia, so she had 20 unexcused absences overall because she was too sick to go to school on those days.

PEOPLES: I said, “So you telling me you’re going to put handcuffs on me?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s the law.” I’m like, “Okay.” So I said, “Can I use the bathroom then?” And he was like, “Yeah, you can use the bathroom.” Go upstairs. I use the restroom. And all I could think about is like, I don’t have no thoughts. I didn’t know what to think.

All I can do is just shake my head like, oh my God, I’m going to jail. That’s all I kept saying. I’m going to jail, I’m going to jail. I proceeded to go down the stairs. And before they opened the door, they put the handcuffs on me. And I can just feel the coldness from the cuffs. And the sound.

CHAKRABARTI: Cheree was booked and put in a holding cell. Later that day though, she was released. When she got home, her friend called her and told her to go online and Google her name. She did.

PEOPLES: And this is what came up: “Cheree Peoples Orange County OC Weekly. Six parents arrested. Keeping kids in school, out of gangs. Out of gangs? What?! Can you believe this? A gang? Me, Cheree? A gang?! Orange County? Shayla? Like, for real, what? I don’t even know any gangs out here! I don’t even know what they called!

CHAKRABARTI: Cheree had been arrested under a 2011 California law that made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through 8th grade to miss more than 10% of school without a valid excuse.

Now, think back to Cheree’s case. Her school, her daughter’s school knew that Shayla had sickle cell anemia. There was even a 504 plan created for accommodations for Shayla because of that sickle cell anemia. And Cheree said she’d given the school ample evidence from local hospitals that her daughter had been sick. And yet, nevertheless, she was arrested under this 2011 California law because the school just failed to believe her.

Now, that law had been personally championed by then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris had pushed hard for the law as she was running for attorney general. It passed just as she won the election, and so Harris spoke specifically and proudly about it in her 2011 attorney general inauguration ceremony.

KAMALA HARRIS: Last year alone, we had 600,000 truant students in our elementary schools. Which roughly matches the number of inmates in our state prison system. And is it a coincidence? Of course not. And as unacceptable as this problem is, I know we can fix it. In San Francisco, we threatened the parents of truants with prosecution and truancy dropped 32%. So we are putting parents on notice. If you fail to take responsibility for your kids, we are going to make sure that you face the full force and consequences of the law.

CHAKRABARTI: Now as I mentioned, Cheree had told the school multiple times that her daughter, Shayla, had sickle cell anemia. That was the excuse for her absences. But as mentioned, the school didn’t believe her.

PEOPLES: A year and a half later, this is now September of 2014, I’m still battling this case. Because I won’t take a plea deal. A plea deal for parenting classes. What parenting classes exist for sickle cell? What parenting classes exist for to take care of a child that has a non curable disease? What parenting class exists for parents like myself? There’s nothing. There’s no parenting classes that can teach me how to care for my baby.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Cheree Peoples. She spent two years fighting her truancy case, which amounted to dozens of court dates, and finally, on August 12 of 2015, the case was dropped.

So Professor Brank, let me first start with you. You know, we were focusing on alcohol, on guns, et cetera. But tell me what you think about these truancy cases and holding parents criminally liable for kids when they don’t come to school often enough.

BRANK: Right. You know, obviously truancy is a problem. We want kids in school. But I think the case that you just described and we heard her testimony about it demonstrates how they can sometimes apply too broadly and probably can have disproportionate impact with especially minority families, low income families, single mothers, those kinds of families might be disproportionately targeted with them.

CHAKRABARTI: I see what you’re saying. Professor Yankah, did you want to comment on that, in terms of who is maybe disproportionately brought to charges with these parental liability laws?

YANKAH: Well, there’s no question that the truancy laws in particular became a political symbol for simply beating up, really, on Black mothers who are often already overwhelmed. And just as importantly as that, what you hear in the voice of this woman who’s struggling to keep a healthy daughter in school is a kind of overarching problem, which is our kind of knee-jerk tendency to apply criminal law to every social problem.

Look, I’m an educator and so nobody’s a bigger cheerleader of keeping kids in school from kindergarten to their PhD than I am. But, you know, when we look at a mother who’s struggling with a sick child and trying to get community resources maybe, or community support from her school, it seems to me remarkable that we think the way that we solve this problem and many, many other problems of parents who have truant children would be — that our first move would be the application of criminal punishment.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, I don’t think it was the first move, right? I think it was a move that came about because people felt like they had no other options, that maybe other sources of help or guidance were failing.

YANKAH: Well, I would like to think that. But if you look at the United States, we’re remarkable for the breadth and reach of our criminal law. So maybe it sounds hyperbolic to say it’s the first move, but it really is our reflective move over and over and over when we face broad, important social problems, we over rely on the criminal law. And to your earlier point, that’s particularly true in minority communities.

When we see, you know — just to take one famous, but slightly different example, when we had a raging drug problem that overly affected minority communities, we decided to have a war on drugs and marshal the police. When we had a much bigger drug epidemic that we described as affecting the girl next door or Rust Belt communities in the opioid community, we decided to de-scale our criminal law and up our social services and talk about it as a public health epidemic. So if it’s not our first instinct, it’s our too-quick instinct to apply criminal law to social problems.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so there’s two really important things I want to dig into with both of you. And first of all, Professor Yankah, let me ask you a question that I similarly asked to Professor Brank. And that is, you know, she said that 70% of people that she talked to in one of her studies said no, parents should be held responsible for children’s untoward or criminal behavior.

And I think that doesn’t come from nowhere, right? That for people who are not forced to have children, right, if it’s something that you choose to do, whether responsibly or not, that comes with a great deal of responsibility. I do not think it’s actually unreasonable to expect parents to do everything they can to try to help raise their kids to be as responsible citizens as possible. You never know what the outcome is going to be. I will grant that. Parenting is one giant adventure in doing the best with uncertain circumstances.

But Professor Yankah, one of the things that keeps coming into my mind in this conversation is, what do we do when parents do not do their best? And again, this is directly related to the Crumbley case. I mean, I think Cheree Peoples in California is like the opposite, and she’s absolutely trying to do the best for her child. She was held liable for truancy. That was just an unjust thing. But what do we do when parents don’t do their best? And especially with guns?

YANKAH: Yeah, look, I completely agree as the very, very tired father of two small children. I’m very sympathetic to your point. I mean, look, most parents, if not all, most parents pour their heart and soul into raising their children. The cliches are all true. These are our little hopes and dreams wandering around the world. And so I’m sympathetic to the kind of deep impulse we have, you know, you see a child misbehaving in even minor ways and we all take a look at the parents and think, “Come on.”

But I do think there’s got to be a gap between our sometimes first reflex and our more considered impulse. And I mean that in two ways. The first is just because we have this feeling and sometimes even anger, it doesn’t mean that our impulse to apply criminal law is the way to go about fixing these problems.

To your point about the Crumbley case, if our real problem is that we are the only industrialized country with this massive scale of gun violence and mass shootings, the idea that implementing this kind of law for parental liability is the first thing we should do or the most promising thing we should do just seems fanciful, right? We should do what most countries have done, which is look at our relationship with guns.

So I would say that’s the first thing. The second thing, and look, I understand exactly what you mean. I, like any parent, just pray for my children to succeed in the world. But you know, I have a drink with parents of kids who are much older than mine. And they will look at you and they will tell you they’ve done everything they can, but their kid still isn’t employed yet, or is still in and out of a job, or can’t quite get themselves together. And those parents say it with a heavy heart. But I think you know, we all hope for the absolute best, we work for the absolute best. But I think parents are not strange to say, I both have huge responsibilities, but want to know when it is that I can say, I’ve done my best and it’s your life to lead now.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, no, point well taken. Point well taken. But I think this is why the Crumbley case is actually like triply fascinating and triply important for all the reasons that you just stated. And that’s why I keep coming to cases in which parents are not doing their best, right? Because I think, I would hope, and maybe someone can call me naive, that if charges are brought against a set of parents who can prove, “Look, I did this, this, and this and therefore, I shouldn’t be held liable,” in most cases, unlike poor Cheree Peoples who had to fight for two years, that wouldn’t, you know, progress through the criminal justice system.

But Professor Yankah, it’s guns that make this really fascinating to me because, you know, you said it shouldn’t be our first option. Lots of people would say it’s not. The fact is that, you know, America, some Americans have been trying to control the gun violence epidemic through other means, right? Trying to get laws passed, trying to increase gun awareness, trying to get a national background check put on the books, for example. All of those have been failed attempts because of a considerable lobby and philosophy that holds guns sacrosanct above American lives.

So here, now folks are looking to, well, if we can get people to put fences around pools, maybe in an extreme case like the Crumbleys, that might be enough to produce the kind of behavioral change that might get more parents to lock up their guns.

YANKAH: That’s right. No, you’re absolutely right. And look, the Crumbley shooting of his four classmates at Oxford resulted in four new gun laws in Michigan. The first four in decades, including locking up your guns and red flag laws and domestic violence law. So you’re absolutely right about that. And I don’t want to be mistaken as being one of those people who says, just because a law won’t fix everything, we shouldn’t do anything. It is a step.

Your analogy is a nice one. You put fences around pools. I guess my only point is to your point, it says something worrying that we’re looking at a massive problem. We know what the heart of the problem is. We refuse to do anything about that. So we’re driven to what are really rather quite desperate minor issues on the periphery because we refuse to tackle the heart and soul of the real problem.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Professor Ekow N. Yankah, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Michigan, whose work has been focusing on political and criminal theory and justifications for punishment. Thank you so much for joining us today.

YANKAH: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And Professor Eve Brank, professor of psychology and law at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, who’s studied the history and application of parental responsibility laws in America. Professor Brank, it was a great pleasure to have you. Thank you so much.

BRANK: Thank you.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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