Everyone knows that showing up late generally is a bad idea. But is it so bad that it ought to be punished criminally? To some officials in Loudoun County, Virginia, the answer is “Yes.” In their view, the appropriate treatment for habitual tardiness is not criticism, nor ostracism, nor some other “cism,” but is being charged with a crime.
A front page story in the Washington Post this Sunday called attention to the Denicores, who have brought their three children late to school on dozens of occasions since September. Loudoun County concluded that parents who too often bring their children to school late – who engage in “excessive tardiness” as the school calls it – should be charged with a Class 3 Misdemeanor under Virginia law and should be subject to a $500 criminal fine. Other reports from Loudoun County say that Maureen Blake was arrested and released on a $3,000 bail bond after her arraignment for a Class 1 Misdemeanor for “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children by causing them to be habitually late to school,” according to court documents. This was the second time the county has taken such legal action against Ms. Blake. She now faces up to a year in jail.
School officials say that students who come to class late delay the whole class, which adversely affects the instruction of other students. That certainly is true. But the officials also overstate their case, labeling even one-to-three-minute tardies a “child welfare” issue.
To be sure, the Denicores may not be the most sympathetic victims. In their various media appearances, the Denicores have agreed that “[p]unctuality is important,” but have argued that “it’s not the end-all [and] be-all,” and that they need to make sure that their children are “comfortable in their skin” before they arrive at school. Notwithstanding the difficulty of getting kids out the door, most observers are likely to think that they would be able to make it on time—given that they live only a half-mile from the school.
Is habitual tardiness bad and disruptive? Without a doubt. Are these parents responsible for their children’s tardiness? Seems like it. Should they be excused for bringing their kids to school late so frequently? No. But are they criminals?
Consider this: Nowhere in the press reports is there any mention that the county took any significant internal actions, such as detention, suspension, or loss of credit for the tardy students. Instead, the county charged the Denicores with a Class 3 Misdemeanor, which is a crime with significant criminal fines. Ms. Blake, having already faced one criminal charge for the tardiness of her children, has now been charged with a Class 1 Misdemeanor, which means she can be sentenced to jail for up to 1 year and have to pay a $2,500 criminal fine. Children watching their parents being hauled off to jail for a year would make Loudoun County’s claim of concern for “child welfare” laughable.
The conversation on overcriminalization is often focused on the federal government overreaching into areas where it does not belong or for using the criminal law for inappropriate purposes, such as criminal prosecutions under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Lacey Act. But state and local officials are not exempt from the overcriminalization phenomenon. The police power is more appropriately placed in the hands of state officials than the feds, but that does not compel state officials to criminalize every human shortcoming, even repeated ones. There are penalties less serious than criminal charges available to frustrated school officials. It makes sense to use them.
The case here seems like a prime example where criminalization is unsuitable. It would be more appropriate for school officials to work within their own disciplinary authority, up to and including revoking credit for too many late arrivals to class. Certainly parents would be forced to change their conduct if they want their kids to advance in school, and that approach would not require law enforcement and court officials to police school tardiness.
We should recognize these mistaken trends towards overcriminalization at the local level before it is—ahem—too late.