Tuesday, July 26, 2011

We need to pass a law to ban named laws (or "Curling Legislation")

Here's a pretty good rule of thumb: If you're naming a piece of crime legislation after a crime victim, it's probably a bad law. It means you're legislating out of anger, or in reaction to public anger over a specific incident. That's generally not how good policy is made. -- Radley Balko, Senior Editor, Reason Magazine

"Nannyslature...What do you do when a mother comes in and testifies that her son got sick because he drank water out of a creek? Do we have a new law saying you can't drink water out of a creek? That's why you can't drink water out of a creek! That's why we have water-treatment plants. Lewis and Clark got sick when they drank water out of a creek...We're taking care of you. You don't have any responsibility to have any common sense."-- Washington State Rep. Phil Fortunato

The Free Range Kids blog recently reported the latest knee-jerk law in response to a tragic case: Leiby's Law. If this law passes, homeowners and store owners can voluntarily  submit themselves to criminal background checks and, if cleared, get a large, bright green sticker symbolizing that location as a safe-haven for lost children. Really? A 2009 New York study noted that 95.9% of all arrests for any RSO, 95.9% of all arrests for rape, and 94.1% of all arrests for child molestation were of first-time sex offenders. In addition, only one in four Americans (around 65 million people) have any form of criminal records. In short, the law will honestly prevent nothing. 

Named laws have been in vogue for a while. There is the Adam Walsh Act, Megan's Law, Jessica's Law, Sarah's Law (in the UK), the Jacob Wetterling Act, all directed at sex offenders. Laws named after people tend to be more knee-jerk responses that plow through legislature rather than common sense solutions which came after lengthy debate and rational focus to create narrow definitions to address the actual problem. This phenomenon does not seem to be limited to sex offender law. Below are a few examples of named laws on various subjects:

  1. Texas's "Ashley's Law": This law increased penalties and registry requirements for sex offenders was named after seven-year-old Ashley Estell ,who disappeared from a park in 1993 and was strangled to death. Her body was found the next day by a roadside. A sex offender named Michael Blair was arrested and convicted on circumstantial and faulty evidence. Michael Blair was exonerated in 2008 when a series of DNA tests proved his innocence.
  2. South Carolina's Chandler's Law: This law mandates ever ATV user under 16 take a $55 training coursewhile riding.While some of the law is indeed common sense, the criticism of this law is based on human nature, as noted in the linked article. First, "people will always be idiots." Second, "accidents will always happen." "Common sense doesn't always happen, and shit happens." In other words, passing more regulations won't prevent accidents. People are still free to ignore the new law.
  3. NJ's "The Tyler Clementi HigherEducation Anti-Harassment Act": This law looks to prevent college bullying by dramatically expanding the scope of existing anti-harassment regulations.The newer law replaces a narrow definition of bullying with a broad and vague definition that suppresses a great deal of free speech. 
  4. Laci and Connor's Law: This law which makes it a federal offense to harm a fetus during an attack on a pregnant woman was named after Laci Peterson, who was 8 months pregnant when murdered, is heavily criticized as a backdoor attack on abortion rights.
 The current legal flavor of the week is Caylee's Law, inspired by the Casey Anthony Trial. The law was begun by those unhappy with the trial's outcome (she was found "Not Guilty" because of a ramshackle prosecution case who relied on emotion rather than facts to try his case). There was a law proposed by watchers on Nancy Grace and crime TV shows who lack understanding of the justice system. Five states, including Florida and Wyoming, are looking at drafting a "Caylee's Law."

So what is "Caylee's Law" and what will it do? Well, supposedly it will force parents to report their children missing within 24 hours or report a death within an hour. While it sounds like common sense, many articles are questioning the law and offering scenarios that may lead innocent people in jail. Is it truly "better safe than sorry" to panic and call the police every time a child cannot be immediately located? Consider THIS WYFF TV STORY as an example. The missing kid was hiding in his own room where he was "missing"-- K-9 units and Reverse 911 was utilized to find a child that never left his room. Many missing person's reports are resolved this way.

The real fuel for the Caylee's Law is partially our unsatisfied bloodlust for Casey Anthony's head on a silver platter. However, the other half is our faulty belief that mere laws made in haste will somehow prevent rare tragedies from occurring. The "curling parenting" generation is fueling many of these laws. Maybe we can refer to this trend as "Curling Legislation." Laws named after kids may have good intentions. After all, who wants to see a child seriously hurt or killed? However, at some point we must come to the realization we can only do so much in our society to prevent rare tragedies from happening.

Which is a better memorial? An ill-conceived law passed in anger and ignorance? Or an act that uses a rational approach to addressing the root causes of societal concerns? Honestly, we need to propose a bill that will ban the use of names in the bill. Please, just don't name it after anyone.