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No Parent Is Safe From Headline Justice

June 21, 1989|RAMONA RIPSTON | Ramona Ripston is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Being a parent in Los Angeles has become a dangerous occupation.

Under the state's 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, parents run the risk of facing arrest and criminal prosecution if their child becomes a suspect in a crime. The law states that parents can be charged criminally if they are believed to have either encouraged their child's criminal activity, or if they are found to have not done enough to keep their child on the straight path. It says that parents will be held criminally accountable if they do not exercise reasonable care, but does not define in any way just what "reasonable care" is.

The law is so vague and subjective that no parent is safe from its reach. This legislation is simply another in a series of high-gloss, ineffective law enforcement solutions to the very real and serious problem of gang violence.

A few weeks ago the Los Angeles city attorney's office, using the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, filed criminal charges against Gloria Williams, a Los Angeles mother, claiming she had encouraged and participated in her teen-age son's alleged gang activities.

Armed with photos seized from the family's album and a litany of accusations about her fitness as a parent, law enforcement officials took their evidence to the nation's press. There Williams became the subject of public scorn and ridicule. Without a trial and with, as it now turns out, a faulty investigation into her background, Williams was branded in the national media as a "gang mother" and an unfit parent.

It seemed as if law enforcement, using this case for a publicity stunt, was enforcing a constitutionally suspect law to gain media attention. Now it appears that the city attorney and others in law enforcement have come to agree with those who criticized the arrest of Williams. Earlier this month all of the charges against her were dismissed. What still remains, however, is a highly charged political climate, fed by public officials who persistently seek "headline" solutions to serious social problems.

Urban violence in Los Angeles will not be eliminated by prosecuting mothers who are unable to prevent their children from being caught up in the cycle of gang activity. The so-called "gang mother" law is just one example of politicians applying cosmetics to a critical problem at the expense of constitutional rights. Clearly, the frustration over an inability to control the spiraling syndrome of gangs, drugs and crime has driven public officials to desperate, often ill-conceived measures.

Most parents--just like Gloria Williams--are hard-working people, trying their best to raise children in the face of often overwhelming social and economic pressures. What none of us needs is a law that imposes a duty to prevent youngsters from becoming criminals, but doesn't tell parents what to do or how to do it. Those who commit the crimes should be prosecuted, not others innocent of any wrong-doing.

Strong law-enforcement measures are required to restore the safety of our communities. But to put parents at risk under a law such as the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which is applied arbitrarily against those who are poor or powerless, is unfair and ineffective.

In an effort to promote the law as the long-awaited solution to urban crime, public officials admitted it was aimed directly at inner city parents--many of them females supporting a household alone. Sadly, such logic flies in the faces of what we now know to be true--that crime and drugs are problems in every community across the country, large and small, rural and urban alike.

Los Angeles doesn't need more headline justice to whitewash ineffective and constitutionally indefensible laws. The city needs serious and reasoned solutions to problems that threaten the very fabric of society. The public must demand--and deserves nothing less than--a commitment from all of its leaders to find rational answers to the epidemic of gangs, drugs and crime that is now sweeping the country. To accomplish this, adequate resources must be allocated, instead of the investment of precious tax dollars in a public-relations campaign.

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