How Many Parents Can We Prosecute? : Gang Problems, Like Drug Abuse, Won’t Ease Without Participants’ Self-Motivation


It is a typically American response to a serious social problem: Make it a crime.

We seem to be making little headway against drugs or gangs, so officials urge that we punish more people involved in these activities. In addition to putting drug traffickers in prison, let’s jail drug users. Let’s make the parents of gang members join their children in jail.

While the merits of these efforts and proposals vary considerably, they share an enthusiasm for the criminal remedy that should give us pause.

Criminal punishment should be saved for those who most deserve it; it is not an effective, or proper, means of social reconstruction.


Drug czar William J. Bennett wants to send more people to prison for drug crimes. He wants to seize drug users’ cars and send users, even first-time ones, to jail. He urges the conversion of ships and military bases to prisons and the creation of penal boot camps to handle these new prisoners. He hopes to deter drug use by the threat of arrest and prosecution.

Here in Los Angeles a single mother of three has been arrested and charged with failing to supervise her teen-age son by condoning his gang activities. Officials hope the case will send a message to other parents that a new state law requires that they exercise “reasonable care, supervision, protection and control” over their children.

These efforts may have some symbolic impact. But if they are to be a meaningful part of our criminal arsenal, if they are to be more than the stuff of press conferences, officials must overcome at least three major obstacles.

The first is money. Handling a new offender population will require more resources system-wide: more police, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and probation and corrections officers as well as new penal facilities. But most local, state and federal politicians, attuned to their constituents’ desires, show no enthusiasm for additional spending of this sort.

The only alternative to spending more is to redistribute present resources. If we want to punish a new crop of offenders, some old offenders must go. If we want to make drug users or gang parents spend the weekend in jail, then some burglars, thieves and drunk drivers must go free.

Even if we find the money to punish more people, we must ask whether this is the best way to spend it. Substance abusers lick their addictions when they find the desire within themselves to kick the habit. Treatment programs and the support of professionals and ex-addicts can help, but by themselves are not enough. The best we can hope for criminal punishment is that it will enhance the desire to go clean. But will it make more people become drug-free than would additional treatment centers or job programs?


Most parents love their children and try to look after them. Many parents, especially single parents, find it difficult to control their teen-age offspring; poor single parents often find the task overwhelming. Perhaps some would do better if they feared jail, but surely most parents do the best they can with the resources they have. Wouldn’t providing more support for poor single parents be the most cost-effective approach?

Finally, we must consider the justice of additional criminalization. The conduct targeted may be bad, but do these people deserve incarceration? If we think what an adult marijuana smoker or cocaine user does is as bad as stealing or robbing or assaulting, then imprisonment may be deserved. If a parent truly condones criminal activity by his or her children, that may constitute a form of child abuse or neglect that merits punishment. But if our real goal of criminalization is to help drug users and the children of lax parents, then we are in serious moral trouble.

We have spent most of this century punishing people under the sham of forced rehabilitation. When it finally became clear that rehabilitation cannot be forced on anyone, the hoax was revealed and we admitted the obvious. California law now explicitly states: “The purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.”

Politicians charged with tackling the drug problem express enormous and understandable frustration. The public demands that they do something about it. But the problem lies more with the public than it does with our public leaders.

The drug scourge will diminish (it will never disappear) when the great majority of Americans decide that drugs are as bad as officials say. This takes time; look at cigarette smoking. After years of acceptance, a new consensus is building that may substantially diminish the devastation of smoking. It is happening because people have been persuaded by the strength of the evidence, not because anyone has been threatened with jail.

Recent efforts to extend the criminal sanction involve a considerable irony. They are often promoted by conservatives who have strongly argued, with regard to social programs and economic regulation, that government should become smaller, not bigger. They have argued that government cannot and should not use welfare programs to reshape society.


Yet that is exactly what they seek to do with the criminal law. And there is no reason to believe that government as cop works any better, or stands on any higher moral ground, than government as social worker.