Don’t let the police teach your kid a lesson

The criminal justice system is not the place to show children the virtue of accountability

May 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

If you knew your child committed a crime, would you tell him to turn himself in? It’s a classic ethical dilemma, one that pits our intimate family values against our duty as responsible citizens. It can also be read as a modern, secular version of Abraham’s crisis of faith: Sacrifice your child or fall out of favor with the law.

Parents are responsible for protecting their kids. But what does that mean when they’re looking at jail time?

When Baltimore 18-year-old Allen Bullock’s mother and stepfather saw him on the news smashing a police car window with a traffic cone, they figured he ought to turn himself in. Pictures and videos of Bullock were all over the media, including the front page of The Baltimore Sun. So after consulting with his parents, who were afraid the police would kick in their door, Bullock told prosecutors who he was and what he had done.

He received no divine mercy. He was charged with eight criminal counts, including rioting, malicious destruction of property, disorderly conduct and theft. After he was charged, his mother, Bobbi Smallwood, told The Guardian that she regretted advising her son to talk to prosecutors. She didn’t expect him to be held in a cage indefinitely to await sentencing.

Had Bullock broken his neighbor’s window playing baseball, I expect his parents would have advised him to come forward, offer to repair the damage and apologize for what he did. But this reasonable desire for that sort of justice is premised on the assumption that the punishment will fit the crime. A parent’s biggest concern, I imagine, is for their kid to learn their lesson and be given a chance to make things right. 

The six police officers who killed Freddie Gray are all free on $250,000 or $350,000 bail. Bullock, who came forward to take responsibility for his actions, was released on $500,000 bail.

But the American criminal justice system operates according to different rules. Adversarial procedure is the name of the game. This means the state’s job (except for ensuring adequate defense) is to prosecute offenders to the full extent of the law. Fairness is neither side’s obligation. Rather, it is supposed to result from the tension between defense and prosecution in front of a jury. In practice, more than 90 percent of cases end in plea bargains. When you throw yourself or your child on the mercy of the court, prosecutors are not looking for a fair resolution. They’re looking for plea leverage, or enough charges to scare you into confessing. Even if you have already confessed, the system works on autopilot. That’s why Bullock has been charged with eight counts for one outburst. Prosecutors throw the book at everyone because grand jury indictments are easy to get and it puts them in a good position to negotiate deals.

Still, Smallwood isn’t to blame for what happened to her son, the law is. The idea that parents should take equal responsibility for their children’s actions outside the home is as widespread as it is unfair. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked sounds extreme when she says the mothers of enemy soldiers should be killed too so they don’t raise “more little snakes,” but it’s the attitude my mother always called “cherchez la mom,” and it’s not confined to traditionalists or one side of the political spectrum.

In the recent finale for the debut season of ABC’s crime drama “Secrets and Lies, a show about a town ripped apart by a child’s death, Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) turns himself in for the murder he has been trying to escape allegations about. Once he figures out that his 12-year-old daughter is the real culprit, he would rather bear the penalty himself than inflict it on his child. This trade probably won’t work in Season 2 and wouldn’t work in real life either. In reality, prosecutors have little problem charging multiple people for the same crime. Prosecutors aren’t debt collectors out for a pound of flesh. They’re entrepreneurial, happy to get two for the price of one. No doubt Bullock’s guardians feared they too could become targets if he tried to duck the authorities.

The American criminal justice system is designed to be at its fairest when defendants exercise their rights to the fullest, which includes their right not to incriminate themselves. This clashes with the dominant parenting ideology, which encourages children to confess as a character-building exercise. But practically speaking, providing evidence against yourself just increases the penalty, regardless of whether it’s fair. The six police officers accused of killing Freddie Gray — none of whom have confessed — are all free on $250,000 or $350,000 bail. Bullock, who came forward to take responsibility for his actions, was released only after his family was able to pull together $500,000 in bail from supporters.

Bullock was detained for a week at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which may very well be longer than any of Gray’s accused killers spend behind bars. Such a capricious system has nothing good to teach America’s children.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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