Op-Eds


"Family Values" and the Law: A Guest Post

By Jennifer Collins, Ethan J. Leib, and Dan Markel, The New York Times

Most Americans probably understand that our legal system recognizes the family in many ways. Since most people order themselves in recognizable family units, it isn’t altogether surprising that the law takes notice and uses convenient short-hands. For example, since most people probably want to leave money to their families upon death, why not save them some costs and create a default rule for where people’s money should go when they die without a will? Or consider the rule in many states that married couples share their property equally: it is a convenient short-hand that saves people time and money by selecting the rule most of us would probably select and forcing people who want different rules to make their preferences known.


There are also well-known advocates of “family values” in our culture who think the law ought not only to recognize and notice that we often privately order ourselves in families, but that the law also ought to create incentives for us to so organize. These people think we should have tax breaks for getting married and having kids.


Whatever one thinks about these sorts of laws in general, we took upon ourselves the task of seeing how these sets of commitments lead us into a very bizarre and incoherent set of policies in our criminal justice system. Our book, Privilege or Punish, mines our criminal-law apparatus to see how these efforts to promote family values and use family as a short-hand play themselves out in the high-stakes area of criminal law, where people’s life and liberty (rather than a small tax deduction) are on the line. We were surprised by what we found and ultimately concluded that in most cases, the use of family status within our criminal law was quite ill-conceived.


The criminal law uses family status in a willy-nilly way. Sometimes defendants benefit and sometimes they are burdened by virtue of their family status, ties, and/or responsibilities. To give you a sense of the panoply of benefits and burdens, consider a few of the ones we plan on discussing here in the next few posts:
• Nearly 20 states give exemptions or substantial punishment discounts to those harboring a fugitive when that fugitive was a close family member;
• Many states permit or require sentencing discounts to offenders who are parents with care-giving obligations;
• Most states impose duties to rescue, supervise, and support children and the breach of those duties renders one eligible for criminal sanction;
• Most states have bigamy, adultery, and incest laws that render conduct “criminal” that would not otherwise be unlawful but for the family status of the defendant.


To crudely sum up our various conclusions, we basically claim that the state should exercise substantial caution and indeed hostility to most attempts to distribute these benefits or burdens based on one’s family status. This is a controversial stance, but we conclude that in many circumstances there are simply too many costs to the criminal justice system when it gives special treatment based on one’s family ties or responsibilities.


Moreover, even when the criminal justice system does not suffer in terms of its ability to reduce crime and to impose accurate and adequate punishment, the signals of such family ties, burdens, and benefits are often expressly denigrating the lives of those who don’t live by the rules of a heterosexual and repro-normative conception of family life. Our view is that a criminal justice system in a liberal democracy has to be especially careful about sending these messages of denigration and inequality through its most awesome instruments of power, coercion, and condemnation.

7/9/2009