Barn Doors + Anger + Ignorance + Irresponsible Legislators = “Caylee’s Law”

When someone first mentioned the wave of support for “Caylee’s Law,” proposed legislation so far pending in four states making it a felony for a parent not to report a child’s death within an hour or a missing child within 24 hours, I responded that it “sounded like a good idea.”  Lots of dumb things sound good to me before I think about them. “Caylee’s Law,” is in fact a terrible idea, and about 10 minutes of quality thought illuminates why.

The law is the result of multiple factors more related to human nature than sound law enforcement. When something unpopular and frustrating happens, like the death of Caylee Anthony and her mother’s subsequent acquittal of murder charges, the response is often to try to fix the problem with a law. Such laws are often formulated in the heat of emotion and sentiment rather than careful reasoning and consideration, and the result is  bad laws that cause more problems that they solve.

These laws also embody the Barn Door Fallacy. Society passes broad-based measures to stop an unusual occurrence that has already done its damage, and that may be extremely unlikely to occur again. Nevertheless, society and the public saddle themselves with expensive, inconvenient, often inefficient measures designed to respond to the rare event. One shoe bomber, and millions of passengers have to remove their shoes to go through airport security. One adulterated bottle of Tylenol, and every over-the-counter drug bottle requires a razor blade and the manual dexterity of a piano virtuoso to open. Two sick boys shoot up Columbine, so third graders get suspended for bringing squirt–guns to school.

The murder of Polly Klaas spawned California’s “three strikes” law, because the girl was kidnapped and killed by a man on parole for a previous crime. Aimed at increasing mandatory prison time for repeat violent criminals, its effect was long mandatory sentences of non-violent addicts and petty thieves. This has led to crowded prisons and billions of dollars in related costs, culminating recently in the U.S. Supreme Court ordering California to release 30,000 prisoners due to over-crowding and inhumane conditions. Did the law save any potential Pollys? There is no way to tell. Mostly, it just made people feel like they were doing something.

That’s no way to run a criminal justice system.

It is perhaps too much to expect typical citizens to divine the weaknesses and flaws in ill-advised legislation. It is probably asking too much to expect the media pundits to be much better, especially those whipping their listeners into a frenzy over the “outrageous” Casey Anthony verdict. Elected legislators, however, should be able to do better, since, after all, writing and passing legislation is their job.

Shouldn’t we expect them to figure out that the statutory time limits on reporting a dead or missing child are absolute without being clear? When, for example, does the clock of “Caylee’s Law” begin running? When the child dies or vanishes? When a parent realizes the child is missing or dead? How, exactly, do we determine when that is?

Might an attentive legislator be concerned about the likelihood that the law will spark premature and mistaken reports of missing children? Or that these could well over-burden authorities, causing them to have fewer resources and less time to investigate real disappearances? Should a legislator be expected to explain to the “What about Caylee?” chorus that such false alarms risk causing police to regard the proliferating  missing child reports as the equivalents of crying“Wolf!” or “The sky is falling!”, to be greeted with skepticism rather than urgency?

Time’s Maia Szalavitz pointed to other scenarios:

“…consider what would happen if your teenager failed to come home one night. This utterly common occurrence would require you to file a police report to avoid felony charges under Caylee’s Law. Some versions of the proposal would limit its scope to children under 12, but if it were applied to all children, it would risk flooding the police with hundreds of thousands of useless missing-teen reports, tying up time that could be used to solve actual cases.And even in situations involving children under 12, many false alarms may result from perfectly innocent confusion over the specifics of custody arrangements, which could result in wasted police and court time.”

If the majority of our elected representatives were competent, prudent, honest, courageous and intelligent, the answers to these questions would all be “Yes.” There isn’t a critical mass of competent, prudent, honest, courageous and intelligent legislators, however. The typical legislator at the state or national level is untrained, expedient, cynical, cowardly and intellectually lazy. Thus when hundreds of thousands of angry, well-meaning, ignorant citizens sign an on-line petition calling for “Caylee’s Law,” politicians aren’t going to oppose it, even if such a law will kill more future Caylees than it saves. Maybe they are too dumb or lazy to figure it out, never thinking about the implications of the law beyond my initial,  “That sounds like a good idea!” gut reaction. Maybe some of the smarter ones know it’s a bad law, but would rather put endangered children at risk than face the wrath of  voters. Either way, the legislators who will pass “Caylee’s Law” are irresponsible and incompetent, and unworthy of their positions.

The debate will get ugly, too. Because the badly-conceived, counter-productive law carries the name of a murdered girl, a vote against “Caylee’s Law” will be called a vote against Caylee, just as Democrats in Texas claimed that George Bush’s opposition to the hate crime legislation spawned by the murder of James Bird meant that he was siding with the murderers. Opposing this messy and fruitless Barn Door exercise will earn thoughtful critics accusations of supporting Casey Anthony, as if the law somehow punishes her. In truth, “Caylee’s Law” wouldn’t have saved Caylee, or changed her mother’s conduct one iota.

“Caylee’s Law’ is a bad idea, pushed by emotionally upset, good people who are supposed to have elected representatives to apply  experience and expertise to law-making, and temper the passions of well-meaning amateurs. The fact that so many of them don’t, can’t or won’t do their duty of competent and responsible legislation explains a great deal about how the United States got in the mess it’s in.

3 thoughts on “Barn Doors + Anger + Ignorance + Irresponsible Legislators = “Caylee’s Law”

    • And may I say—ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!! Tgt e-mailed me about “catlee” and I checked the damn thing three times and couldn’t find it. And it was in the title….where I never check for typos (obviously.) Crapcrapcrap.
      Sorry, and thanks.

  1. Perhaps this is a naive idea, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it…

    It’s clear that voters are frothing right now about children and safety — so what if a group of lawmakers took that energy and attempted to direct it towards actions that would be effective in better protecting children?

    For example, I bet there’s research about ways to identify and protect at-risk kids before they are harmed. I bet there are statistics about the crucial window for reporting a missing child, and the actions that are most likely to result in a child’s safe retrieval. And I’m guessing that if you gathered some experienced law enforcement folks, and social workers, and family counselors, they’d have good ideas for laws or programs that WOULD be effective in protecting children, without needlessly compromising the freedom and privacy of families.

    Anyway — I think a savvy group of lawmakers could gently re-direct their wound-up voters to put some energy behind a well-designed program, and perhaps everybody could win.

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