Peter Sinkamba

by Peter Sinkamba


Although it is generally held that criminal liability is not transferable, in some countries, it is not the case when it comes to offences committed by deliquent children.

Yesterday, a jury in the U.S. state of Michigan found the mother of a 17-year-old school shooter guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Jennifer Crumbley, 45, was charged with four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2021 deaths of the four students her son Ethan Crumbley killed at Oxford High School: Hana St. Juliana, Tate Myre, Justin Shilling and Madisyn Baldwin.

She faces up to 15 years in prison per count. She will be sentenced on April 9.

The case is the first instance in the United States of parents being charged in a school shooting committed by their child. Jennifer Crumbley’s husband, James Crumbley, 47, will be tried separately in March.

According to prosecutors, Jennifer Crumbley was grossly negligent in her failure to inform Oxford High School of key details that could have prevented the shooting. The prosecutors said she failed to tell them that their family owned guns, including a 9mm handgun purchased for her son before the attack.

Additionally, before the attack, school officials met with the parents, concerned about disturbing images drawn on a math assignment, featuring the same gun the Crumbleys had recently purchased for their son. The image also featured pleas for help, prosecutor Karen McDonald said.

After the meeting, Jennifer and James Crumbley resisted taking their son home and were advised to seek counseling for him.

“He literally drew a picture of what he was going to do,” McDonald said Friday, during closing arguments. “She knew that he was proficient with the gun. She knew he had access to ammunition.”

The Crumbleys are also accused of neglecting their son’s mental health needs. Their son Ethan kept a journal leading up to the attack, where he wrote that his parents ignored his cries for help. He wrote, “I have zero help for my mental health issues,” saying that it led him to shoot up the school.

Defense Attorney Shannon Smith argued that this case would set a dangerous precedent. She said that Ethan was a “skilled manipulator,” not someone with a mental illness, and that the gun was not Jennifer Crumbley’s but her husband’s responsibility.

The prosecution decided to charge too quickly, Smith said, arguing that it was done for political gain and media attention.

Among the jury, comprised of six men and six women, are gun owners and people who grew up in households that owned firearms. The jury said that this would not interfere with their fair judgment.

During the trial, Jennifer Crumbley testified that the gun was purchased as an early Christmas present to be used only at the shooting range. She told the jury she was unaware of discipline issues, and only knew that her son had trouble turning in assignments.

“I thought we were pretty close,” she said, adding that she had no reason to believe that her son would commit the acts he did.

In the U.S. laws holding parents criminally responsible for the delinquent acts of their children quickly followed the enactment of civil liability and neglect-type statutes in 1903. Colorado became the first State to establish the crime of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (CDM).

Supporters of CDM statutes believe that the conditions within the family are the most predictive component of a child’s behavior and that it is the responsibility of the parent to provide sufficient positive guidance to children on the importance of adhering to the values of society at large.

This type of legislation quickly gained popular support, and since the enactment of the Colorado initiative, at least 42 States and the District of Columbia have passed similar legislation. One of the oldest of such laws, an amended CDM statute from California, includes misdemeanor sanctions against parents who fail “. . . to exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection and control over their children.”

The California law was expanded in 1988 as a component of a larger, anti-gang initiative undertaken by the State. Violation of the provision brings a misdemeanor charge and may include a fine no greater than $2,500 and a 1-year prison term. In 1995, Arizona, Louisiana, and Wyoming enacted comparable laws creating a crime of “improper” or “negligent” parental supervision, with misdemeanor sanctions similar to the law in California.

Some States have taken action to hold parents liable when children gain access to a firearm, but their provisions vary in language and parental intent requirements.

At least 9 States hold adults criminally responsible for storing a loaded firearm in such a way as to allow a minor to gain access. Some of these provisions include an enhanced penalty if the minor causes injury or death to himself or another person and create exceptions for parental liability when the minor gains access to a weapon by unlawful entry into the home or place of storage or if the firearm is used in self-defense.

In addition, 13 States have provisions that create criminal liability when a custodial adult or parent is aware that his or her child possesses a firearm unlawfully and does not take action to prevent the possession. Typically, penalties levied on parents for violation of safe storage laws are misdemeanors, but parents found guilty of these crimes in California, Connecticut, and Florida are subject to felony charges under some circumstances.

While some States impose criminal liability on parents of delinquent youth, many more have enacted less stringent types of parental responsibility laws in the past 2 years.

Coming to our beloved country Zambia, in view of growing numbers of criminal gangs a.k.a as junkies, is time ripe for our executive and legislature to consider enacting CDM-like statutes?

The Green Party in government will surely enact CDM laws.


  1. Interesting and thought provoking article. Considering the prominence of child rights in the USA, to what extent can parents exercise disciplinary oversight on the child without running against the law?

    My take on this is that we should be cautious in the way we apply these so called child rights, especially in the home and school environments.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here