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Reactionary criminal laws and their unintended consequences

How many times have you heard someone start a sentence with: "There should be a law"? Americans seem all too eager to pass laws, especially in the wake of disaster or tragedy. Criminal law, in particular, is full of statutes passed in response to gruesome crimes.

While this urge to solve problems through legislation is understandable, it comes with some serious unintended consequences. The first is enforcement. There are so many laws written by state and federal governments that coming up with a comprehensive list of statutes is nearly impossible. The second problem is that when criminal laws are written hastily, they often lead to disproportionately harsh consequences for offenders convicted of lesser crimes (compared to the crimes that inspired the laws in the first place).

Just one of many examples is a California law that was passed in the mid 1990s. In October of 1993, a 12-year-old girl was kidnapped. Within two months, investigators had found the man who later admitted to kidnapping and killing the girl. The story and subsequent trial were closely followed by the news media.

The public was particularly angry about the fact that, when the crime occurred, the defendant had been out on parole. He was supposed to be serving a 16-year prison sentence for crimes that included kidnapping, burglary and assault. Wanting to prevent a similar situation in the future, the victim's father pushed for a "three strikes" law in California. This type of law, which many states have adopted, allows for (and sometimes mandates) life sentences for individuals with three felony convictions.

When the legislation was drafted, it apparently did not distinguish between violent and non-violent felonies. For this reason, the victim's father stopped lobbying for its passage. Nonetheless, the ballot initiative was overwhelmingly approved by the public.

It is not difficult to see how a broadly written law like this could be misused and abused. Three-strikes laws are most likely to impact non-violent drug offenders, and there's no telling how many non-violent offenders in California are now serving life sentences because of this law.

It is telling that the man who worked so hard (initially) to advocate for this law has since tried to revise or repeal it. It is equally telling that politicians have avoided changes to the law for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."

News of horrific crimes often prompts the public to push for new, more stringent criminal statutes. But every law passed comes with unintended consequences. In many cases, a reactionary approach to criminal justice is likely to do more harm than good.

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