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Caylee’s Law won’t work

Recipe for pander porridge: Take spicy if deeply flakey criminal defendant who in the eyes of many got away with murder, add crowd-pleasing legislation making her aberrant behavior a crime, and stir. Place in super-heated media environment until well done. Serve to constituents while still piping hot.

This is the distasteful dish being cooked up by politicians in at least 16 states -- including, we’re sorry to say, California -- in reaction to the acquittal of Casey Anthony. The recipe originated soon after an Orlando jury ruled July 5 that Anthony was not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, when Michelle Crowder of Oklahoma launched an online petition on the social-change website Change.org. “There should be a new law created called Caylee’s Law that will make it a felony for a parent or guardian to not notify law enforcement of a child going missing within 24 hours,” says the petition, which as of Wednesday had attracted nearly 1.3 million signatures.

Only too happy to agree were California Assembly members Paul Cook (R-Yucaipa) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). Cook plans to introduce a bill that would make it a felony for parents or guardians to fail to report a missing child under 12 within 48 hours, or to fail to report the death of a child within two hours. Mitchell’s bill is even tougher, criminalizing the failure to report the death or disappearance of a child under 14 within 24 hours.

California lawmakers love tough-on-crime bills that boost prison sentences for bad guys, but what’s dismaying about the so-called Caylee’s Law is that it criminalizes bad parenting. It’s not hard to imagine the result. There are all too many indigent and uninvolved parents in California, many with substance-abuse or mental health problems, who will end up in court if either bill becomes law, while their kids, who might have run away or gone to a friend’s house for a day or two, will be more likely to end up in foster care. That might be for the best in some cases, but it will produce more broken families and more taxpayer expense.

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Moreover, it’s not clear what problem the law would solve. It wouldn’t have changed much in the Casey Anthony case. Anthony waited a month to report her daughter missing, and if such a law had existed in Florida at the time of Caylee’s disappearance, another felony might have been tacked onto the charges against Anthony and, if convicted, she might have spent a few more months in jail. But that wouldn’t have changed her acquittal on murder charges, which is what is fueling popular outrage.

Obviously, people should report dead or missing children, but if parents are responsible for their deaths, a new law won’t compel them to do so. There is only one practical reason these bills are appearing on the legislative menu: They pander to voters, most of whom are unaware of the unintended consequences that would result from their passage. Lawmakers should send them back to the kitchen.


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