Because I am a youth volunteer and a lawyer, I tend to be the “go-to” guy in my (large) church when a student has a brush with the law – typically arrests for things like minor in possession of alcohol or cigarettes, or simple possession of marijuana. When the panicked parent calls, they typically already have one of two plans in mind: 1) they want me to do everything I can to help the student; or 2) they just want information because they have decided to not help and let the student “suffer the consequences” of their arrest as part of the discipline. This blog post explains why I always try to talk parents out of option two, and why I think you (as the youth pastor) should do the same if a parent asks you. Note: this post assumes the student really did do what they are accused of – students who are not guilty are a different topic entirely.

I will begin by stating what should be a couple of uncontroversial points. First, it is clear that Christian parents are called to exercise loving discipline of their children, as verses like Prov. 29:17 and Ephesians 6:4 make clear. Secondly, Christians are called to follow the secular law so long as it does not contradict God’s law (see 1 Peter Ch. 2 and Romans Ch. 13). Within those boundaries, though, our legal system allows for a defense, for bail, and many other protections for people who have been arrested. Should a Christian parent take advantage of these protections on their child’s behalf? Yes, and here’s why (and remember Paul in Acts 22:25, who claimed his rights as a Roman citizen):

Parents Should Bail Their Child Out of Jail Immediately, Not Let the Student “Sweat it Out” for a Few Days
The initial question is often whether, after an arrest, the parent should leave their child in jail or bail them out immediately (i.e., pay a “bond” to allow the student to go home until the eventual trial). Sometimes, well-meaning “tough love” parents think a few days in jail is just the discipline their student needs. This is a huge mistake, for a bunch of reasons:

First, if you leave your child in jail, they will be in jail with people you probably don’t want them spending time with. Arrestees with families that care about them bail them out of jail. That means the people sitting in jail waiting on a trial are either totally without friends and family, or more likely, have been accused of very serious crimes and are not eligible for bail. People in jail don’t know each other. The way they compete for social status is bragging about how tough they are and how many crimes they have committed and how often they fooled the police. Are these the conversations a parent wants their child to be having. 

Secondly, if the student is in jail more than a short period, they will likely required to change into jail clothes. This will include a visual “strip search.” Depending on the jail policies, it may include an even more humiliating and embarrassing body cavity search.

Third, drugs are very common in jails. Inmates are often bored, and drugs are one way to pass the time. They are typically smuggled in by workers at the jail. If the student has not been exposed to drug use before, he or she likely will be at the jail.

Finally, the issue of sexual assault in jails is very real. I’m not going to go into detail about this, but it is a serious and absolutely real threat in jails to both men and women. And it is as awful as you might imagine.

Students Should Not “Just Tell the Judge They are Guilty”
The other misguided (in my opinion) approach taken by well-meaning Christian parents is to reject any sort of legal assistance, and to tell the student “Just go in and tell the judge you are guilty.” This is known as a “straight up” guilty plea by lawyers, meaning it is a guilty plea with no agreement from the prosecutor as to the punishment. It is a mistake for two principal reasons: 

First, the entire legal system is designed around negotiated guilty pleas. If someone goes in without a deal in place with the prosecutor, the judge is likely to assume there are aggravating circumstances and sentence more harshly. Note that a student does not have to deny their guilt to negotiate a plea – in fact, it is expected that he or she will tell the truth.

Secondly, most jurisdictions have a number of “diversion” programs for first-time and young offenders that typically require counseling, drug testing and community service and then wipe the student’s record clean. These programs are critical in mitigating the harm caused by a student’s one-time bad judgment and a lawyer can explain them all.

Discipline of students who made bad choices is part of Godly parenting. But I counsel parents to handle discipline at home, and try at all costs to avoid having their son or daughter chewed up by the court system. I’d encourage you to do the same.

Bill Mckinnon is a lawyer and a youth worker and receives feedback and blog post ideas at [email protected]. This is intended to be helpful direction, general commentary and in no way should be sonsidered legal advice.