It was once suggested, as a general rule of staying alive, never to fly on an airline named after a state or the owner. As a general rule of sound government, it’s also a good idea never to enact a law named after a person. Personalizing criminal law usually stems from fruitless outrage at a freakish event.
Plenty of legislators are ignoring that risk. Their proposals, all going by the name “Caylee’s Law,” are an understandable response to the acquittal of Casey Anthony of killing her 2-year-old daughter. Swearing when you stub your toe is also understandable, which doesn’t mean it will do your toe the slightest good.
It remains an open question whether Anthony committed murder, but even if she didn’t, she was guilty of shocking malfeasance. What mother who had nothing to hide would fail to report her toddler missing for 31 days? The sponsors think that alone constitutes criminal neglect.
So in some 20 states, bills have been introduced making it a felony not to report a child’s disappearance within a given time — eight hours, 24 hours or 48 hours. Some would also make it a crime not to report a child’s death within one or two hours. If such a law had been in effect in Florida three years ago, Anthony might have gotten a lengthy sentence despite the murder acquittal.
It seems to have gone unnoticed that she did get a lengthy sentence — one year each on four counts of lying to law enforcement officers, almost all of which (with credit for good behavior) she had already served. Florida can blame itself for leniency on that offense. If she had given her false statements to a federal investigator, Anthony could have incurred five years in prison per lie.
For people given to homicide, the proposed change would have zero deterrent effect. If Anthony was willing to overlook the laws against murder, she would not have been fastidious in complying with a reporting rule.
The point of these measures is retribution against a single villain who allegedly escaped the severe penalty she deserved. But a law specifically aimed at preventing a repeat of today’s notorious case will almost certainly be irrelevant to the shocking crime of tomorrow. In these instances, the unforeseen and surprising are the norm.
From the push for Caylee’s Law, you might assume the problem with American justice is that there are not enough criminal laws on the books. In fact, there are some 4,400 such statutes at the federal level alone, on top of thousands more enacted by the states.
So pervasive are the prohibitions that journalist and lawyer Harvey Silverglate titled a book “Three Felonies a Day” to suggest how often an ordinary person may unwittingly risk imprisonment. If there is anything prosecutors lack, it’s not grounds on which to investigate or indict citizens.
Targeting parents who fail to report missing kids on a government-approved schedule will probably accomplish nothing useful. Conscientious adults with grounds for concern already call the cops. But the change would burden police with trivial cases that would soon resolve themselves.
Already kids are reported missing at the rate of more than half a million a year, usually because they run away or neglect to tell parents where they are. A 2002 Justice Department study noted that “all but a very small percentage are recovered fairly quickly.”
But a mother whose son has a habit of absconding and reappearing could go to prison for exercising sensible patience. A divorced dad whose ex-wife gets angry when he’s tardy returning the kids from a weekend outing could give new meaning to “custodial parent.”
Cops, meanwhile, would be swamped with cases that are beyond their capacity to investigate and don’t need investigating. Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen says parents with rebellious adolescents “will go to the police, and the police will say, ‘This is the fourth time, right?’ And the cops will do nothing.”
Or maybe they won’t. But if they leap to locate all the absentees whose parents previously would not have seen the need to report them, police will have less time to focus on the few missing children who need urgent action.
These measures are good for channeling anger about something horrible that can’t be undone. But put them aside until passions have cooled, and chances are they will not be missed.