Sensationalized cases increasingly create the context for public policy discussion. Stories about violent crime are a common feature of the local evening news and their emotional nature can often create the hook politicians need to showcase their “tough on crime” agendas. Often anecdotal and lurid, stories of criminal misdeeds are widely used to convince the public of a need to create or change laws. This article demonstrates the perils of making law by extrapolating from a few random, albeit attention-grabbing, events. Specifically, the article examines the impact of a 1995 change in New Hampshire state law that lowered the age that a youth could be charged as an adult from 18 to 17. The law was passed in the wake of two isolated but brutal juvenile murders with little examination of the empirical data. To demonstrate the counter-productive and perhaps damaging nature of this approach to governance I review juvenile crime rate statistics for the period in question, but it is my view that the impact of the data alone can be significantly enhanced by examining specific instances of the law’s effect. If media stories are used to justify legislative actions, then the stories of those affected by the actions should similarly be useful in deciding if the change is warranted. I will therefore go beyond the data and recount the story of Justin B., a young man whose arrest for simple underage drinking began a Kafka-esque descent into legal limbo and incarceration. This article shows that in New Hampshire, as in states all over the country, the statutory change was an over-reaction prompted by sensationalized and anecdotal evidence. By looking at the events and influences that inspired New Hampshire’s legislative changes, the consequences of the new law, and the effects it had on Justin B.’s life, I show that the law not only fell far short of its intended goals, but possibly made the citizens of New Hampshire less safe and at greater cost.
Amy Vorenberg, "A Miscarriage of Juvenile Justice: A Modern Day Parable of the Unintended Results of Bad Lawmaking," 12 MICH. CHILD WELFARE L. J. 17 (2009).
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