So pervasive are the prohibitions that journalist and lawyer Harvey Silverglate titled a book "Three Felonies a Day" to suggest how often an ordinary person may unwittingly risk imprisonment. If there is anything prosecutors lack, it's not grounds on which to investigate or indict citizens.
Targeting parents who fail to report missing kids on a government-approved schedule will probably accomplish nothing useful. Conscientious adults with grounds for concern already call the cops. But the change would burden police with trivial cases that would soon resolve themselves.
Already kids are reported missing at the rate of more than half a million a year, usually because they run away or neglect to tell parents where they are. A 2002 Justice Department study noted that "all but a very small percentage are recovered fairly quickly."
But a mother whose son has a habit of absconding and reappearing could go to prison for exercising sensible patience. A divorced dad whose ex-wife gets angry when he's tardy returning the kids from a weekend outing could give new meaning to "custodial parent."
Cops, meanwhile, would be swamped with cases that are beyond their capacity to investigate and don't need investigating. Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen says parents with rebellious adolescents "will go to the police, and the police will say, 'This is the fourth time, right?' And the cops will do nothing."
Or maybe they won't. But if they leap to locate all the absentees whose parents previously would not have seen the need to report them, police will have less time to focus on the few missing children who need urgent action.
These measures are good for channeling anger about something horrible that can't be undone. But put them aside until passions have cooled, and chances are they will not be missed.