‘Apostrophe Laws’: Why and How Do Laws Get Named for Victims?


If you’ve ever gotten an AMBER Alert on your phone, you’ve seen an “apostrophe law” in action. These are pieces of legislation named after victims of the issue they purportedly address, usually a crime or disease. Other examples of these, also called “victim laws,” include Megan’s Law and the Ryan White CARE Act.

The reason Congress occasionally does this has been the subject of much debate. Now, in a new study, Ph.D. student Irina Fanarraga presents evidence that lawmakers intentionally attach victims’ names to bills as a strategy to pass legislation on issues they previously supported. Fanarraga is pursuing her degree in criminal justice at John Jay College and The Graduate Center.

Fanarraga’s work appears in Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society.

People generally point to one of three reasons for these laws, Fanarraga says. The naming could be meant to honor the victim, it could be a symbolic gesture meant to make the public happy, or it could be a strategic way to garner support for a bill. Fanarraga looked at every apostrophe law passed at the federal level, and the results of the analysis lean heavily toward the third answer.

For one thing, over 50% of the laws had previously come before Congress under a different title but didn’t pass until the victim’s name was added. Three in particular were introduced before the incident they were eventually named after even happened.

Fanarraga also found that it takes an average of nearly five years from the time of the victim’s event until the bill is even introduced, challenging the idea that these laws are rushed through to display honor or get brownie points with constituents. Additionally, the bills take an average of 286 days to turn into law, which is longer than the average for bills enacted by the 101st through 115th Congresses.

The data also revealed that the overwhelming majority of these laws were named after white people. However, about 52% of the victims were male, which Fanarraga writes does not represent the typical “ideal victim.” Most were introduced by a Republican sponsor, and most came from the House rather than the Senate.

Although the analysis favors the idea that naming these laws is intentional and strategic, it doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of the other two explanations, Fanarraga writes. If anything, the results highlight how complex the legislative process is and just how many factors can influence it.

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

What’s in a Name? An Empirical Analysis of Apostrophe Laws
Criminology, Criminal Justice, Law & Society, 2020

Work By

Irina Fanarraga (Ph.D. student, Criminal Justice) | Profile 1