When are Parents Responsible for Their Children’s Crimes?

For what I believe is the first time since October, I thought to share something not related to the horrible war in Gaza.

It says in the Torah (Devarim 24:16) that parents cannot be punished for the sins of their children, nor children for their parents. This is a bedrock principle of human rights as well.

Recently, however, a jury in Michigan convicted a woman named Jennifer Crumbley of involuntary manslaughter due to a school shooting rampage carried out by her then fifteen year old son. Prosecution claimed she had purchased her son’s gun as a Christmas present, ignored his many signs of mental illness, and failed to warn the school that he had access to a gun when called for a meeting about his threatening behavior just hours before the shooting took place.

There is a lot about this mother’s conduct that is upsetting. However, I still wonder whether holding her legally responsible for the murder may be a mistake.

The Rabbis learn from the verse above not only that parents can’t be punished for their children’s crimes, but also that children and parents can’t be forced to testify against each other. There are different explanations as to why. One is that the family members are not trustworthy with regard to one another- they may be tempted to lie either to help each other or alternatively to hurt one another because inevitably within a family there will sometimes be fights.

But another explanation is that it is just unseemly. Family members testifying about each other in the criminal justice system will rupture our most basic relationships, and the court system shouldn’t allow itself to cause such harm.

In this case, part of the mother’s defense at trial was putting the blame on her husband, claiming he was the one responsible for storing the gun. The husband will soon stand trial on similar charges, and it’s likely one of his defense tactics will be to try to pin responsibility on his now already-convicted wife. There was also the possibility that the son, the actual shooter, would have been required to testify. Presumably, his role would have been to tell the jury how inattentive and negligent his parents were, and potentially indicate whether mom or dad was worse.

The only place where this type of testimony is currently allowed is divorce proceedings, when it’s needed to determine the best interests of the child. Divorce courts are at least supposed to handle these matters, particularly testimony of children, in a private and sensitive way. Should criminal courts really be peering so intimately into a home, pitting family members against each other, and forcing a jury to make highly subjective decisions about parenting?

I’m also concerned about how far criminal responsibility might extend. Why stop with mom and dad? What if the fifteen year old had a particularly close relationship with an uncle, grandparent, or other adult? Could they be criminally liable too? Should the court dissect all of a teenager’s relationships looking to apportion blame, possibly destroying a whole community as people take sides?

The prosecutor claimed Crumbley was a rare case with egregious facts. That may be true, but this still leads us towards a slippery slope. What if someone else had bought the gun, but the mother had been inattentive to her son’s signs of mental illness? What if a parent knew their child suffered from mental illness and idealized mass shootings, but falsely believed the child had no access to a gun so failed to warn the school? What if parents can just be portrayed as selfish and uninterested in their children? What’s enough to make a parent liable for their child’s crimes?

It’s understandable that the prosecutor in this case wanted to send a message that anyone who has the ability to prevent a mass shooting and fails to do so can be punished. Some commentators seem to believe this will have a deterrent effect on parents, causing many more to come forward stopping tragedies before it’s too late. But I’m doubtful the remote fear of far-off, theoretical criminal prosecution will have much impact on parents. If we want to stop the scourge of gun violence, the best step is more laws regulating the purchase of firearms and access to them so that a fifteen year old can’t take a gun to school.

What do you think?

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

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