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One Way to "Reduce" Crime Is to Define It Out of Existence

...unfortunately, however, the victims of the defined-away crime do not go out of existence.  Instead, their numbers increase.

This is the lesson (as if it should need to be a "lesson") of this appalling story from Florida:

Florida's incidences of children who died from child neglect dropped 30 percent in 2010 over the previous year. So what changed? The definition of "child neglect." Florida news outlets are reacting in shock and anger at the recent reveal that Florida's Department of Children and Families limited what "dying by neglect" included. Before, drowning in a swimming pool, being smothered while sharing a bed with a sleeping parent, or being tended by parents too drunk or high to supervise were considered child neglect. But in June 2010 the DCF creatively re-interpreted a death from child neglect to mean "a willful act by the caregiver" that "with intent, allowed the child to be placed at risk." Um, isn't a "willful act" the opposite of neglect? 


While I agree that the Florida DCFS shouldn't tout the decrease, I am not sure that this story is appalling. Not every swimming pool drowning is "neglect." And since we're talking about crimes, usually more than mere negligence is required for the requisite mens rea for criminal negligence (and we are talking about crimes here)--it's been a long time since my model penal code days in law school, but I don't think I am that rusty. We live in an age where parents have to think twice about leaving their kids in a locked car for all of a minute while they retrieve something they forgot in the house. That is the unfortunate result of deeming every accident involving a child a crime. And that's where we are heading.

Clever police departments in my jurisdiction, however, are compensated via grants and other government funding from over defining crimes for statistical purposes. For example, in Arizona a defendant can be charged with kidnapping by holding onto someone and then committing a felony (often seen in sex/molest cases). The Phoenix Police Department then gets to include these types of incidents in their kidnapping stats to argue that kidnapping is rampant in Phoenix, suggesting home invasions, ransoms, and the like, so they need extra Federal grant money. Hopefully funding agencies that provide these grants will be the ones that define crimes for statistical reporting purposes so apples can be compared to other apples throughout the country.

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