How Atrocious Crimes Can Bring Atrocious Laws

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Politicized crime laws enacted in response to atrocities are almost always expensive failures. Scant attention was paid to Jacob Wetterling’s criminal justice legacy at a hometown memorial service for the Minnesota adolescent who became an iconic crime victim after he disappeared in the clutches of a masked kidnapper 27 years ago, writes TCR Contributing Editor David J. Krajicek for AlterNet.. The Wetterling case helped incite the country’s fixation with sex offender registries when a cop complained to the boy’s mother that investigators needed a clearinghouse of perverts to properly begin their search. Minnesota and Washington soon created state registries of convicted sex offenders, and the trend quickly went national. Today, about 806,000 men, women and children (some as young as 9) are registered as sex offenders. But sex registries have been an expensive failure, like so many politicized crime laws enacted in response to one atrocity or another.

“The way this has played out is almost always to name and enact a law in honor of a young white female victim, or occasionally a white male,” says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project. Mauer says adding a victim’s name and face as a true-crime mascot to a law adds drama, not reason, to the lawmaking process. “It’s theoretically possible that certain single events could serve as the basis for a crime law, but the potential for overreach and excessive punishment in these situations is far more of a concern,” he says. “When we consider that we’re a nation of 300 million people…why would we assume that a single incident highlights a problem that no one has been aware of? It’s also the case, of course, that all of these behaviors were already criminalized, so the attention given to what is often an anomalous case only serves to ratchet up the scale of punishment for all.” Krajicek writes about other victims who lent their names to harsh laws, including Polly Klaas and “three strikes and you’re out,” and Len Bias and cocaine punishments.


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