When the not-guilty verdict came down in the Casey Anthony trial last summer, TV personality Nancy Grace exploded in a cable news paroxysm for the ages: “Somewhere out there, the devil is dancing tonight.” The polarizing former prosecutor had massively expanded her national following with her nightly crusades against the 25-year-old Anthony, an unemployed single mom charged with killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. When, soon thereafter, Grace announced she would be joining the cast of Dancing With the Stars, critics had a field day. But her leap into the world of bedazzled spandex was not half as alarming as a less widely discussed foray, into the arena of panic-driven policymaking.
Grace has been a key cultural force behind the emergence of Caylee’s Law, a hasty piece of tough-on-crime legislation currently being considered in more than a dozen US states. Born as an average citizens’ petition on the popular social media website Change.org in the whipped-up hours following Anthony’s acquittal, the appeal accumulated more than 1.3 million signatures—the single fastest-growing campaign in the website’s history. (This had much to do with Grace plugging it on her evening news show, applauding the chance to “actually do something” and scorning those who “just stand by and twiddle their thumbs.”) Caylee’s Law requires parents to report a missing child to the police within twelve, twenty-four or forty-eight hours, depending on the state or, in the case of a child’s death, within one to two hours. (A note to the blissfully Anthony-ignorant: a prime issue at stake in the sensationalized trial was the disturbing length of time it took—a full month—for the Anthony family to report Caylee missing). New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became the first governor to sign the bill into law last month—a particularly strict version that makes the failure to report a missing child punishable by up to eighteen months in prison. New Jersey State Senator Nicholas Sacco, who sponsored the legislation, called it “a well-thought-out bill,” adding that it “would not have prevented what happened, but would have had a greater penalty attached to it.”
On its face, the law sounds well-reasoned. Don’t all parents have certain de facto obligations vis-à-vis their kids—particularly alerting authorities when young lives may be on the line? Michelle Crowder, the 30-year-old Oklahoma mother who authored the Change.org petition, certainly thinks so. “I just decided to jump on there and do it,” she told Grace in an interview tag-lined “Breaking News: Outrage.” But others are not convinced. There is a long history of passing tough-on-crime legislation in the wake of a brutal crime and the results have been mixed, at best. Caylee’s Law is far from unique in transforming the name of an innocent young female victim into a rallying cry for crime-fighting reforms with dubious results. And Grace is only the latest pundit to spin her entertainment empire into a legislative one.
For nearly two centuries, professional news vigilantes have churned out lurid tales of endangered white girls (not to mention diabolical moms); for equally long, these tales have been used to drum up support for some of our nation’s more reactionary and counterproductive public policies. Jim Crow laws often promised to protect “respectable” young white women in the rural south from what the New York Times called, in one 1914 headline, “Negro Cocaine ’Fiends’…A New Southern Menace.” In that same period, anti-immigration policies in the American North and West sought to shield native-born girls from the so-called Yellow Peril, with Munsey’s Magazine warning of the impact “loose-living Orientals” might have on “white girls who [are] not at all of the class that springs from the gutter.”
But the advent of cable television elevated America’s girl-victim fascination to another level—one that has thrived on a model of audience participation that translates easily into the digital age. In the late 1980s, Fox launched the pioneering show America’s Most Wanted, which offered an addictively crusading combo of true crime voyeurism and stirring calls to citizen action, with host John Walsh rallying his viewers around the first slew of TV-peddled victims’ rights reforms. One of them, the federal Adam Walsh Act, was named after the host’s own 6-year-old son, who had been abducted from a Sears department store and brutally murdered in 1981 (the law finally passed in 2006). Following that hit show’s lead, cable newscasters stepped up to become our most ubiquitous merchants of moral panic, with hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren and Rita Cosby transforming tales of missing and murdered young white women into lucrative prime-time commodities that sometimes blurred the lines between sound policy and sensationalism. These assorted voices have championed a growing list of laws inspired by the tragic cases of young, white female victims: Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law, Joan’s Law and others.
The original piece of girl-victim legislation from the cable-news era was California’s AB 971. A frequent touchstone of Nancy Grace’s show, the bill was successfully marketed as a tribute to the memory of Polly Klaas, a sweet-faced 12-year-old from Petaluma, California, who was kidnapped from a slumber party at her mother’s home in 1993, then strangled to death. The emotionally wrenching case took an even darker turn when it emerged that her killer was a repeat offender with a hideous rap sheet. Californians rallied in anger. The result was one of American criminal law’s most strident and sweeping reforms: the mandatory minimum sentencing policy known as “three strikes and you’re out,” which put third-time felony offenders behind bars for twenty-five years to life.
Like Caylee’s Law, the “three strikes” approach was based on an intuitive principle: in the latter case, that people who repeat outsized crimes should serve outsized prison time. States around the country quickly adopted California’s model, with well-known results; rather than focusing on violent career criminals, it established a mass incarceration dragnet that ensnared hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug users and petty offenders, particularly in low-income communities of color. A decade after it passed, Polly Klaas’s own grandfather spoke out against the law. “It’s un-American to keep locking people up for the rest of their lives for shoplifting, writing bad checks and making false statements on loan applications,” he said in 2004. (Klaas’s father, meanwhile, is a regular guest on Nancy Grace’s show, appearing in July to push Caylee’s Law, wearing a button emblazoned with his daughter’s face.)
A similar phenomenon occurred after the horrific rape and murder of Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was lured into the home of a repeat sex offender in 1994 after he asked if she’d like to see his new puppy. The story became a nightly-news fixation, lending momentum to a public crusade for more aggressive online registries that would publicize the current addresses, criminal histories, photographs, places of employment, and other personal details of convicted sex offenders. In 1996, Congress unanimously passed Megan’s Law, an amendment to the Jacob Wetterling Act, authorizing local law enforcement to notify the public about convicted sex offenders living in, working in, or visiting their communities; all fifty states and the District of Columbia followed suit with their own local spin on Megan’s Law.
In dozens of states, the resulting notification policies include telephone calls, door-to-door warnings and bright cautionary flyers plastered in public spaces, advertising the arrival of a new pariah in the neighborhood. In some cases, the publicizing of offenders’ personal information has inspired acts of vigilantism, including arson, murder and other attacks on individuals whose home addresses are distributed by the state. In Ohio, Alabama, and Wisconsin, lawmakers proposed special license plates to mark the cars of prior offenders. In California, a state fair even offered the dubious thrill of a “Megan’s Law booth” where, not far from funnel cake vendors and cotton candy stands, curious attendees could type their zip codes into a government system and obtain names and photos of convicted sex offenders living nearby. Although these measures are intended to keep children safe, little evidence exist that they do. To the contrary, a study by the New Jersey Department of Corrections’ Kristen Zgoba and colleagues found that the state’s system for registering sex offenders and warning their neighbors cost nearly $4 million in 2007 but had “no demonstrable effect” on reducing the number of sexual offenses. According to Michael Buncher, a public defender in the state, the registry laws can even be “counterproductive,” serving to “isolate offenders from normal relationships, undercut their opportunities for housing and employment,” and thereby contribute to recitivism rather than prevent it.
More recent spin-offs of Megan’s Law raise even clearer red flags for defenders of civil liberties and those who care about finding more reliable ways to protect children from serious threats. For the past several years, a wildly popular iPhone app called “Offender Locator” has offered users an interactive map of local sex offenders that can be as addictive and falsely soothing as a game of Angry Birds. “The more sunlight we hit sex offenders with, the less space they can crawl into,” New York City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Queens), told the New York Daily News in praise of the app, whose advertisement warns, “They know where you and your family are…. Now it’s time to turn the tables.” Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, some forty-four states have passed or are considering new permutations on the post-parole surveillance theme for released sex offenders, requiring some individuals to be monitored for life with ankle bracelets and global positioning devices.
As with “three strikes,” these initiatives bring unintended and sometimes high-stakes consequences. Most public registries categorize a broad swath of individuals as “sex offenders”—from teenagers who engaged in consensual sex and faced prosecution under statutory rape laws to individuals who urinated publicly (“indecent exposure”)—thus overwhelming law enforcement officials and making it difficult for the public to distinguish between violent, high-risk sex offenders and those convicted of lesser crimes. An alarming Human Rights Watch report published in 2007 found many lives upended by the reform, which demands significant state resources to implement. Megan’s Laws and related statues, the report concluded, “are ill-considered, poorly crafted, and may cause more harm than good.” Yet, since the report’s release, the number of people listed in public sex offender registries has only continued to climb: The current figure stands at more than 747,000—more than the entire population of Wyoming, Alaska, or Vermont.
Then there’s Jessica’s Law, proposed after the haunting murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford by a convicted Florida child molester in 2005. Versions of the law have passed in the overwhelming majority of states, imposing, among other things, strict rules about where sex offenders could live upon leaving prison. In some states, parolees were banished from residing within 2,000 feet of a school or park—as well as, in stricter regions, beaches, bus stops and day-care centers. This was supposed to create pockets of safe space for kids to live and play, free from “stranger danger.” Or at least that’s what was routinely promised on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor, whose riled-up host trumpeted the bill as “huge and absolutely necessary in America where boundaries are breaking down fast.” Instead, Jessica’s Law has given rise to what some call “sex offender ghettos,” amorphous enclaves of ex-offenders living under bridges, in parking lots and in crowded industrial-zone hotels as the result of being ineligible for housing almost anywhere else. In Miami, for instance, a colony of as many as seventy registered sex offenders formed a controversial encampment under the Julia Tuttle Causeway; Time magazine reports that the colony was a direct result of “draconian residency restrictions” that relegated ex-offenders to squatting in tents and shacks without running water, electricity or bathrooms. In California, home to a particularly stern version of Jessica’s Law, transience among sex offender parolees skyrocketed after its passage. “State figures show a 27 percent increase in homelessness among California’s 67,000 registered sex offenders since the law took effect in November 2006,” reported the AP in 2007. Between August and the end of October 2007, the number of offenders with no permanent address increased nearly five-fold. Police and community groups have argued that this makes neighborhoods less safe, not more. “The public definitely was sold a bill of goods on this one,” a Los Angeles law enforcement official told the Washington Post in 2008. “Unfortunately, it bodes well for politicians to support it because the public does have this false sense of security that this is somehow protecting them when it’s not.”
Will Caylee’s Law fare better? Communities around the country are taking up the debate. Bill O’Reilly threw his weight behind it in a fiery op-ed describing Casey Anthony as “simply another barbarian who couldn’t even be bothered to protect her baby.” But many authorities and legal experts are doubtful that criminalizing mothers in this way would keep kids safe. In Florida, law enforcement officers testified before the Senate Select Committee on Protecting Florida’s Children, warning of major flaws in Caylee’s Law. Some stressed that it could “interfere with efforts to find an abducted child, or work against prosecutors seeking later to convict someone accused of murder or abuse.” Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsy cautioned that it might also perpetuate the misconception that there’s an official waiting period before parents can report a child missing, a myth that can thwart early interventions. The state’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved the bill nonetheless.
Then there are matters of enforcement. How much time is enough time before a parent’s reasonable wait to report turns into an unforgivable felony? What if a teenager leaves for a party one Friday night and doesn’t come home as expected; should a parent be required to notify the police, at the risk of being prosecuted and spending up to five years in jail? In the case of a natural disaster, should parents who are unable to locate their children amidst the crisis but also unable, due to bureaucratic hurdles, to report disappearances, be put at risk of prosecution? Divorced parents and parents in low-income communities would be, if past approaches to girl-victim laws’ enforcement are any predictor, particularly vulnerable to prosecution.
But such concerns haven’t stymied politicians posturing as the sole defenders of missing girls and crime victims. Many recognize the hasty variety of girl-victim legislation as a crowd-pleaser for the cable news constituency, and some have already spoken “little Caylee’s” name on the campaign trail. Last fall, Alabama’s State Senator Bryan Taylor railed against Casey Anthony’s “raucous, partying lifestyle” at a special news conference on local courthouse steps, noting of his proposed version of Caylee’s Law: “This isn’t about Casey Anthony anymore. It’s about making sure the law protects innocent children in Alabama and holds the adults charged with their care accountable for despicable, criminal conduct.” His rhetoric, like that of politicians in New York, West Virginia and elsewhere, advertises to voters that they needn’t fear: he is not among the thumb-twiddlers whom Nancy Grace regularly excoriates. He’s among the “do somethings.”
But is that “something” really a contribution to public safety, and not simply to ratings and poll statistics? The answer might be as simple as one of Nancy Grace’s favorite words: objection.