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Closing Argument

The Parents Paying for Their Children’s Crimes

Experts warn about a wave of legal consequences for parents like the Crumbleys, while some states consider prosecutions for kids as young as 10.

A White man wearing glasses, headphones and an orange prison uniform sits at the defendant’s table in a courtroom along with two female attorneys and a White woman wearing glasses and a black-and-white striped prison uniform. Prosecutors review documents at the adjacent table. In the background, a sheriff stands in front of people seated in the gallery.
From left, James Crumbley, his attorney Mariell Lehman, Jennifer Crumbley, and her attorney Shannon Smith, sit in court in Pontiac, Michigan, for sentencing on April 9. The Crumbleys are the first parents convicted of involuntary manslaughter for a U.S. mass shooting committed by their son.

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In separate trials earlier this year, Jennifer and James Crumbley became the first parents in U.S. history to be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for a mass shooting committed by their child.

On Tuesday, they were each sentenced to 10–15 years in prison, the maximum penalty for the crime. Prosecutors argued the Crumbleys ignored urgent warning signs that their son Ethan was having violent thoughts, and that the parents provided access to the gun he used to kill four classmates and injure seven other people at his school in November 2021.

Legal observers have said that the facts of the case are unusual, yet many still wonder if it now sets a precedent for a “slippery slope,” where more parents could be criminally charged for what their children do. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to pick and choose only cases like this,” Northern Illinois University law professor Evan Bernick told Al Jazeera this week. “Once you’ve got a hammer — and this is definitely a hammer — everything can look like a nail.”

Some worry that while the Crumbleys are White, an expansion of criminal charges against parents for the actions of their children would disproportionately affect Black parents or poor parents. That’s the concern in Tennessee, where some lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would fine parents up to $1,000 if a child commits more than one criminal offense.

At least one other recent school shooting case has also led to the novel application of criminal charges against adults. This week in Newport News, Virginia, prosecutors charged a former assistant principal with felony child neglect. The charges came after a grand jury report concluded that school administrators ignored four warnings from students and staff that a 6-year-old boy had a gun at school. The boy shot his teacher the same day. Like in the Crumbley case, the charge against a school administrator is believed to be the first of its kind, and prosecutors said Thursday that there could be more charges to come.

Deja Taylor, the mother of the child, was sentenced to two years for child neglect in December. The state sentence was in addition to a separate 21 months for federal crimes related to her purchase of the gun used.

In an edition of this newsletter last year, we discussed how the Newsport News elementary school shooting was a test case for the legal question of how young is too young for a child to face criminal charges. Prosecutors have since said they will not charge the boy, but legally nothing stopped them from doing so. Last month, Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin vetoed a bill that would have restricted prosecutors from charging children younger than 11, saying in part that it undermined public safety.

This week a group of former and current prosecutors chimed in on Youngkin’s decision, arguing in a USA Today opinion article that, “A child who can barely read needs treatment, not incarceration, and there are countless ways to address accountability and also get that child the necessary support to thrive and grow without involving a courtroom or prosecution.”

In Maryland, the issues of charging parents for what children do, and how young is too young for criminal prosecution, have also been roiling. This week, state lawmakers passed a bill that will let prosecutors charge children as young as 10 with certain crimes. The previous limit was age 13. The move comes as some crimes spike, especially carjackings, allegedly committed by young people. It also follows a pair of high-profile mass shootings involving young people last year. But the measure also comes against the backdrop of an overall decline in youth crime in the state over the past decade.

Only a handful of children in Maryland each year are accused of the crimes in the new law, something that advocates on both sides of the legislation have pointed to, according to reporting by The Baltimore Banner’s Brenda Wintrode. Opponents of the law said it was unnecessary to address something so uncommon. Critics also generally argue that involvement with the juvenile criminal justice system may create more crime rather than prevent it. Supporters of the law said that given the small number of incidents, the legislation won’t cause a notable increase in the number of kids being pulled into the system.

Kids aren’t the only ones who could start being pulled into the system more often in Maryland. In an announcement highlighting the arrest of 20 young people accused of crimes earlier this month, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates made a point to mention “parental accountability,” warning: “From here on out, if you are found to be contributing to the delinquency of a minor child, my office will look to charge you and hold you accountable.”

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.