Mississippi Bill Threatens Parents Who Spank

An existing Mississippi law makes it a felony to “whip, strike or otherwise abuse or mutilate any child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily harm” (emphasis added). For those who break this law, the maximum punishment is life in prison, the minimum is ten years.  Current legislation aims to remove the word “serious,” which could put parents who spank in the line of fire.

UPDATE: This bill died in committee on March 6, 2012 (see https://legiscan.com/gaits/view/374093)

The Mississippi Legislature is considering Senate Bill 2180, which if passed and signed into law, would make it a felony to “whip, strike or otherwise abuse any child” “in a manner causing bodily harm.”  The most significant change made by the legislation would be the removal of the word “serious.”  This word is important because its removal would blur the lines between legitimate, loving corporal discipline and true criminal abuse.  The new phrase “bodily harm” is not defined.  As a result, a social worker, law enforcement officer, or judge who did not approve of corporal discipline could easily construe “bodily harm” to mean a passing red mark or even pain which causes no mark at all.  In such a case, parents who caused their children such “bodily harm” would face at least ten years and up to life in prison.

The bill does make “reasonable discipline” a defense. However, the defense is vague because the term “reasonable discipline” is also not defined and is therefore subject to similar misuse. Moreover, because reasonable discipline is made a defense, parents prosecuted under the law could easily be treated as guilty until they can prove their innocence (an expensive proposition, to say the least). Parents should be considered innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.

At first blush the new bill may not appear to change much.  It may even appear better than the existing law because it adds a “reasonable discipline” defense. However, looks are deceiving in this case. The existing law does not need a “reasonable discipline” defense because only actions which cause “serious bodily harm” are made a felony, and serious bodily harm is defined to exclude anything which anyone would consider reasonable discipline.1

CONCLUSION: This legislation would remove the “serious” standard and add a very vague “reasonable discipline” defense, both of which are undefined and subject to dangerous misuse. As written, this is bad legislation. Instead of giving social workers, law enforcement officers, and judges more leeway to define away our parental rights, we should be reining them in.

Important Points

  • Mississippi has an existing law that makes it a crime to “whip, strike or otherwise mutilate any child in such a manner as to cause serious bodily harm.”  Punishment for the crime ranges from ten years to life in prison.
  • “Serious bodily harm” currently means “bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or permanent or temporary disfigurement, or impairment of any bodily organ or function.”
  • Mississippi Senate Bill 2180 would remove the word “serious,” but would add a defense for “reasonable discipline.”
  • The removing of the word “serious” would make it a crime to cause any “bodily harm” to a child.  Because “bodily harm” is not defined, this phrase can be easily misapplied by social workers, law enforcement, or judges.
  • The reasonable discipline defense is not needed with the existing law because any discipline applied in such a manner as to cause “serious bodily harm” would not be considered reasonable under any definition.
  • Conclusion: This legislation is unnecessary, unhelpful, and dangerous.

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1  The Mississippi Supreme Court has held that “serious bodily harm” means “bodily injury which creates a substantial risk of death, or permanent or temporary disfigurement, or impairment of any bodily organ or function.”  Wolfe v. State, 743 So. 2d 380, 385 (Miss. 1999).  Moreover, the Mississippi Supreme Court has held that the term “serious bodily harm” excludes reasonable discipline: “As long as the discipline is moderate and reasonable in light of the age and condition of the child, and other surrounding circumstances, the parent or custodian will not incur criminal liability.” Wolfe v. State, 743 So. 2d 380, 385 (Miss. 1999).


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