In the wake of the Penn State child-abuse scandal, authorities in several states have considered toughened and broader mandatory-reporting laws. These laws impose criminal penalties on certain adults, such as teachers and social workers, who fail to report known or suspected child abuse to the police.
I don’t have data on the number of prosecutions under existing mandatory-reporting laws, but others have written that these cases are relatively rare. (And, if anything, toughening the laws by converting what are now misdemeanors into felonies will make prosecutions even less common.) I’ve discussed elsewhere why prosecutors are often apathetic about new crimes. Here, I’ll simply point out that crimes like the mandatory-reporting offenses are quite peripheral to the everyday work of the criminal justice system.
Indeed, you might be surprised by how small a portion of any criminal code drives a very large percentage of the overall criminal docket. To illustrate this point, a while back, in connection with some other research I am pursuing, I performed a back-of-the-envelope exercise using charging data collected from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) Central Charge file for federal criminal cases that terminated in Fiscal Year 2009 (October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2009). I wanted to see (1) how many different crimes were encompassed within this dataset and (2) the number of crimes that accounted for 50,75, 90, 95 and 99 percent of these charges. (Here, keep in mind that, at least according to one source, as of 2008 there were an estimated 4,450 crimes across the federal criminal “code.” Though, in truth, no one really knows for sure, and much depends on how you go about identifying distinct “crimes.”)