There's an old adage in politics that says "it's always better to do something than nothing." One look at emotionally charged legislation like Kate's Law, however, and that hackneyed phrase gets turned on its head.
Officially titled "Establishing Mandatory Minimums for Illegal Reentry Act of 2015," Kate's Law does exactly as its title suggests: It establishes a five-year mandatory minimum for illegal aliens who are deported and re-enter the country illegally, and 10 years for anybody who does it three times. Introduced after the tragic murder of Kate Steinle at the hands of an illegal alien, the law's sponsors argue that it is the first step in preventing illegal immigrants from "preying" on American citizens.
In reality, it responds with draconian punishments to address a drastically-overstated problem.
Kate's Law is only the most recent example of harmful criminal justice reform. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed Megan's Law. Introduced after the brutal rape and murder of 8-year-old Megan Kafka, the law mandates that law enforcement officials must make once-private sex offender registries public.
Like Kate's Law, Megan's Law takes a ham-handed approach to a widely misunderstood crime, broadly establishing ineffective limitations on individuals who very rarely commit again. And while it may seem intuitive to punish some of society's worst criminals, using harsh measures on those who have already served their time has been proven to be wholly ineffective in combatting pediatric sex crimes.
Another example is Caylee's Law. Named after the 2-year-old victim in the high-profile Casey Anthony case, the law establishes penalties for parents who fail to report their child as missing after a certain amount of time, depending on the state.
The penalty, which in most cases is a felony, is severe considering that most missing child reports are false alarms. In 2012, for example, there were 661,000 cases of missing persons, 659,000 of which (99.7 percent) were canceled quickly after they were filed.
Is a felony charge really appropriate for something that is so often nothing more than premature worry?
Criminal justice law has developed to the extent that almost every heinous crime is already illegal. And these new laws, which supposedly cover a gap in the penal code, more often than not address a specific situation as if it is part of a wider epidemic. Ted Frank, the founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness, put it well in his opinion piece, writing that "a crime or event that warrants a new law is by definition a rare occasion." And citizens, in his opinion, should take action to limit these "apostrophe laws."
But that isn't to say that nothing has been done to solve the problem. In South Carolina, for example, the state Senate passed a law in early 2017 to ban the use of individual and animal names in bill titles. According to the state's Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, the law was passed because a name on a bill "adds an emotional aspect of the bill that really is a distraction from the merits."
These examples are only a small sample of the destructive emotion-laden legislation in the books across the country. And while most are written with good intentions, their unintended consequences have evidently created more problems than they solve. To make room for knee-jerk emotional appeal, they have sacrificed substance and created legislation that is duplicative, draconian, wasteful ?? or all three.
In light of all this damage, it's time for other states to follow South Carolina and say they've had it with legislating by anecdote. And it's time for politicians to finally forsake the low-hanging fruit of emotional criminal justice laws and focus their time on the bigger issues of debt, entitlement reform, and healthcare. Our unforgiving economic and political climate demands it.
Noah Duell is a fellow in the Koch Fellowship Program.
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