Why We Don’t Need Caylee’s Law

In the wake of the Casey Anthony verdict, a number of state legislators have proposed, either in their elective bodies or in the press, the enactment of a so-called “Caylee’s Law” to create or enhance penalties for not reporting death of one’s child. This is a bad idea for several reasons.

First, it has nothing to do with what happened to Caylee Anthony. It only has to do with what the Casey Anthony defense said happened to Caylee, which no one believes anyway. However, since murdering a child is already a crime and often an enhancement toward a death sentence, even when someone who might have done it gets away with it, the only new law available is one that covers what didn’t happen.

Second, what didn’t happen doesn’t happen very often. That’s what made Casey’s defense so unbelievable. It’s not what people do. Why do we need to create legislation for a non-existent need?

Because it meets a wholly different need. We need to feel good about ourselves. We need to feel that even though the law couldn’t do something to help Caylee, if we pass a law in her name, however remotely connected to actual events, we are creating some sort of justice for her. Is the need to feel good about ourselves, however ephemeral, a reason to enact laws?

Third, legislation by knee-jerk reaction is pretty much always a bad idea. Let me give an example from my other country, home to the Mother of Parliaments and the Mother of All Knee-Jerk Reactions. In August 1987, Michael Ryan, a mentally unstable man with a fascination for firearms, perpetrated what became known as the Hungerford Massacre. He killed 15 people  using a Beretta 9mm pistol, a Chinese version of the AK-47, and an M1 carbine. This is the first time that anyone in Britain had committed this sort of gun crime.

In response, Parliament outlawed all semi-automatic and pump action rifles and shotguns, any shotguns other than single shot or double barrel, and any shotgun with less than a 24 inch barrel. Remember, a shotgun was not even used in the crime. Also outlawed were any revolvers other than muzzle-loaders. Remember, a revolver wasn’t even used in the crime. At this point, it probably won’t surprise you that they also outlawed rocket launchers and mortars. To top if off, the Home Secretary (the cabinet minister in charge of law enforcement) was given the power to prohibit any firearm or ammunition not on the list, should he find it wise (or ideologically congruent) to do so.

All this legislation didn’t stop Thomas Hamilton from killing sixteen 5- and 6-year-olds in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996. The obvious answer was more legislation. The Conservative government wouldn’t do it, but lost in a landslide the next year. The first legislation by the Labour government was to outlaw all of the weapons left out of the previous ban and impose a mandatory five-year sentence for owning a gun.  As a result, gun crime in the UK has steadily climbed, from one-off incidences to regular occurrences.

So why do I give a worst case scenario for knee-jerk legislation? Surely the Caylee Anthony case and response is nothing like that. The problem is that we become accustomed to accepting knee-jerk reactions. We become accustomed to finding our national salvation in legislation, whether it is moral or economic, like destroying an economy with massive government debt in the pursuit of fixing a problem that was caused by massive debt in the first place.

Governments always over-react and when they over-react quickly, they tend to over-react disastrously. Even in the case of Caylee’s Law, look at the domino effect already in motion. The non-reporting of a child death is suggested in one case in Florida. I currently know of proposals for a Caylee’s Law in Alabama, Oklahoma, Maryland, Indiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, and of course Florida. One organization is pushing for a federal law.

This is all with a matter of days after the Casey Anthony acquittal. Had Casey been found guilty, these proposals would never have been considered. Justice would have been seen to have been done and everyone would have felt good about themselves. What does this say about the need for Caylee’s Law?