The “occupation” of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is deeply frustrating to the rational mind for many reasons. Please don’t mistake my views on the unintended consequences of bad law for an endorsement of the occupiers. It’s not.
That said, we should understand that really good, well thought-out, common-sense public policy almost never generates opposition. And sending a 73-year-old to prison a second time for the same offense is not good, well thought-out or common-sense public policy. It is an unintended consequence of bad law.
Here is a good piece on how bad law (draconian minimum sentences) led us to this sorry state of affairs in Oregon.
Bad laws typically are created in an atmosphere that makes it difficult to cooly assess whether the law is actually going to address a problem, or whether it is just a frantic gesture that makes everyone feel like something sensible is being done.
A politician who has experienced a trauma can be a particularly toxic agent in the making of law. Convinced in his grief that he will spare the rest of the world the heartbreak that he suffered, the traumatized politician cobbles together a proposed law that he supposes might have prevented the tragedy that visited his life. A politician acting out of his emotional pain is a difficult challenge for the individual who wants to examine whether the proposed law actually does address a problem and, more important, the possibility the proposed law will cause unintended negative consequences.
Our mandatory minimum sentences grew out of a toxic mix like this. We were traumatized as a society by the “drug culture” of the 1970s and 1980s, and all the attendant crime we supposed could be attributed to drug use. So we embarked upon the futile “war on drugs” and a part of the war was the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, “three strikes” laws and other measures enacted to make it appear that we were doing something about illegal drugs. No one stopped along the way to observe that drug addiction is a public health problem, not a criminal problem. Had we paid attention to that fact, we might now be living with some effective public health solutions instead of a nation filled with overcrowded prisons.
Which brings us back to Oregon. The drug-war-era draconian mandatory minimum sentencing laws spilled over into other areas of law enforcement, giving prosecutors a tool they misused in the Oregon arson-on-federal land case. Is it any wonder that a gang of government haters took up the cause of an old man subjected to double jeopardy by politicians who seem incapable of recognizing their own bad judgment?
Good, calm, clear communication on the front end might have prevented this mess. When laws are being made, rational people with good communication skills ought to come together and answer some simple questions:
- Does this proposal actually address a problem, or does it only seem to do so? (And if there is a problem, do we already have laws that address it?)
- To what extent are we acting out of pain and fear without regard to common sense and sound public policy?
- What additional burdens would this law place on innocent people?
This means telling passion-filled politicians to slow down and reflect on things. There should be no such thing as a “fast track” in law-making.
Legislation that is on a fast track is a runaway train headed for disaster.