Political Ignorance and “Caylee’s Law”

The recent controversial acquittal of Casey Anthony has stimulated efforts in many states to enact “Caylee’s Law” as a response. The law would require parents to report a missing child to the authorities within 24 hours, and the death of a child within 1 hour. If they fail to do either, they would be guilty of a felony (a federal one if the law is enacted by Congress).

Radley Balko has a good column explaining the many shortcomings of this idea. As he points out, high-profile criminal cases often stimulate demands for ill-advised laws, even when the case in question is extremely atypical:

Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea. They play more to emotion than reason. But they’re disturbingly predictable, especially when they come after the death of a child. ….

There are myriad other problems with the one-hour requirement. What if a child dies while sleeping? When would you start the clock on the parent’s one-hour window to report? From the time the parent discovers the child is dead, or from the time the child actually dies? If it’s the former, can you really believe what a parent tells you if he knows a felony charge hinges on his answer? What if a parent or babysitter missed the deadline because she fell asleep at the time the child was playing outside and suffered a fatal accident?…

The portion of the bill that requires a parent to report a missing child within 24 hours is just as fraught with problems. When does that clock start? From the time the child actually gets abducted, gets lost, or is somehow killed, or at the time the parents noticed the child was missing? How do you pinpoint the time that they “noticed”?….

The law and the attention it attracts could also cause problems of overcompliance. How many parents will notify the authorities with false reports within an hour or two, out of fear of becoming suspects? How many such calls and wasted police resources on false alarms will it take before police grow jaded and begin taking note of missing child reports, but don’t bother investigating them until much later? How many legitimate abductions will then go uninvestigated during the critical first few hours because they were lost in the pile of false reports inspired by Caylee’s Law?

This is not the first time that a highly unusual but much-publicized case has led to this kind of overreaction. Consider the dubious “zero tolerance” policies enacted after Columbine or Megan’s Law, enacted in reaction to a rare case of child rape by a stranger.

Why are these laws so popular with voters? Part of the explanation is an understandable sympathy with the victims. But a logical and knowledgeable electorate would still ask serious questions about the potential costs and benefits of the proposed laws before supporting them – especially if, as in this case, the proposed law might actually undercut crime-fighting efforts by wasting law enforcement resources. The very rare parents who deliberately kill their children and then try to cover up the evidence are unlikely to report what happened merely because of this law. A conviction for murder is a much greater threat than a conviction for violating Caylee’s Law, unless the punishments for the latter are going to be truly draconian (which would be problematic in its own right). On the other hand, lots of innocent parents will probably file reports just to avoid even a slight risk of prosecution, thereby burdening law enforcement agencies with lots of useless paperwork and false leads.

It seems likely that political ignorance is an important part of the story here. The public sees the high-profile case, and has a knee-jerk desire to “do something about it.” Most voters don’t realize how rare such cases are, and also know very little about the potential downsides of proposals like these. And, because political ignorance is rational, few will take the time and effort to investigate the evidence and deliberate carefully before forming an opinion. For their part, politicians hungry for votes and activists hungry for media attention are more than willing to cater to the public’s demands.

It’s unrealistic to expect rationally ignorant voters to devote significant time and effort to studying proposals like Caylee’s Law. But they should at least adopt Ted Frank’s Law as a helpful heuristic:

My rule of thumb is a strong presumption that any law named after a victim is poor public policy enacted by legislators who confuse voting against a law with voting against an innocent person…

Ted’s rule isn’t perfect. Once in a blue moon, a law named after an atypical but highly publicized crime victim really will do more good than harm. But it’s likely to be correct a lot more often than not. Indeed, Frank’s Law is so logical and simple that one wonders why most voters haven’t adopted it already. Sadly, the answer may be that it’s rational for ignorant voters to do a poor job of evaluating the information they do have. In the wake of a terrible tragedy, it’s much more emotionally satisfying to call for decisive action to save the next Caylee Anthony than to hold back on the grounds that there may be nothing we can do.

UPDATE: Ted Frank has some thoughts of his own on Caylee’s Law here.

UPDATE #2: Maia Szalavitz of Time has some further information on the flaws of Caylee’s law and the harm caused by past laws enacted under similar circumstances.