This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.
Well, our bold and spunky congressional pals finally crossed the line. They spent our tax dollars so carelessly, and at such an alarming rate, that we were forced to stage what amounted to a national public fiscal intervention. Suddenly, the boring federal budget became big news, as Americans demanded that Washington restore our nation’s economic health and cut all wasteful and inappropriate spending, including the government funding of NPR and Planned Parenthood. This signal from the citizens was valuable despite an eventual Republican surrender in the most recent budget battle. And while I’m pleased that the overspending was exposed, I wonder when the mainstream media will uncover the government money pit of over criminalization.
“Over criminalization” refers to the recent trend in Congress to use the criminal law to “fix” every publicized issue — a horrendous waste of government spending. Essentially, our representatives are criminalizing conduct that should be regulated by civil or administrative means. Over criminalization has left U.S. Attorneys with a wide selection of crimes with which to charge people: There are over 4,500 federal crimes and over 300,000 regulations with criminal penalties. Not surprisingly, many of these obscure laws have led to unreasonable arrests and unjust prosecutions. These costly over criminalization policies amount to both federal waste and government overreach.
Any one of us can be targeted and imprisoned. A homeowner can be arrested for failure to prune her shrubs, in violation of the city’s municipal code. A small-business owner can do time for lack of proper paperwork when importing orchids. Don’t own a business or a garden? You are still not safe. When the new health-care law goes into effect, everyone, with the exception of unions and other exempt parties, will face severe penalties for failure to purchase government-approved insurance. In fact, refusal to comply with the new health-care regulations is a federal violation punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. The grander issue of wasteful government spending is still salient, but over criminalization, while a part of that issue, also has large negative implications for the immediate livelihood of the American people.
While it is difficult to know exactly how much money the government spends to prosecute a single case, it’s instructive to look at a recent example: the infamous Barry Bonds trial. San Francisco U.S. Attorneys spent eight years and countless tax dollars investigating and prosecuting Bonds for allegedly lying under oath regarding his steroid usage. After they had dedicated so many hours and so much of the criminal-justice system’s limited resources, the jury refused to convict Bonds on any of the serious charges, finding him guilty of one charge of obstruction of justice. We need to be selective about the cases that rise to the federal criminal level, because spending our tax dollars on cases that drag on too long means that our money is being wasted.
Let me be clear: We should be tough on actual criminal acts. Let the punishment fit the crime. However, when prosecutors pursue frivolous cases that disrupt our quality of life, it’s not just that the government is wasting our tax dollars and is threatening our liberty, but it is spending less time going after real criminals: the arsonists, the murderers, and the sexual and financial predators. In actuality, our government is passing policies that are weakening our criminal-justice system and decreasing our safety.
In another example, highlighted by the Heritage Foundation, auto-racing legend Bobby Unser got lost in a blizzard, almost died, and was later convicted for operating a snow mobile in the natural wilderness. The conviction itself is quite unbelievable. If Mr. Unser did enter the wilderness, and there is no such proof, it was only due to the fact that he was disoriented in the blizzard. Nevertheless, he faced a $5,000 fine and a six-month prison sentence. It is estimated that the federal government spent approximately one million dollars to prosecute Mr. Unser.
In addition to the cost of prosecution, there are also costs associated with imprisonment. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the federal inmate population was 211,176 as of March. The average cost of incarceration for one federal inmate in fiscal year 2009 was $25,251. So putting justice, liberty, and the wishes of the founding fathers aside, it’s not exactly cheap to lock up people either. We should ensure that only real criminals are behind bars. Instead of locking up gardeners for violating regulations, we should fine them and generate income.
The secondary hidden cost of over criminalization is more difficult to quantify, but is still a drain on our economy. Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, in an essay for the Heritage Foundation, argues that criminal penalties have caused paranoia among all members of the business community. Businessmen are not innovating for fear of getting prosecuted, and as a result they are unable to compete in the global market. This is especially detrimental to the recovery of our ailing economy.
Because the cost of federal prosecution and imprisonment is so high, we need to ensure that this severe sanction is reserved only for actual criminals. We need to bring over criminalization to the forefront of the American media and political table. Over criminalization affects our daily lives and hurts all Americans. The stifling effect of criminalizing acts that should be of a regulatory nature is having a suffocating effect on American business and entrepreneurship.
A government capable of making seemingly innocuous conduct criminal is one that should be feared. The unlucky victims of the feds would certainly agree with me.
Ten members of the House Judiciary Committee have agreed to form an Over-Criminalization Task Force to review the expansion of the federal criminal code and make recommendations for paring it down. There are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the law books, with new ones being added at a rate of about 50 a year.
This proposed review of federal criminal laws is the first since the 1980s, when the number of federal crimes on the books was about half what it is now. The task force will conduct hearings and investigate issues around over-criminalization and will have the opportunity to issue reports to the Justice Committee on its findings and policy recommendations.
Among possible topics for the task force are federal drug laws and sentences in general and federal marijuana prohibition in particular. The group could also explore the issue of mens rea, or criminal intent, particularly in relation to the expansion of the use of conspiracy laws since the late 1980s. The use of those laws has led to low-level offenders, including some who were not even part of a drug trafficking enterprise, being sentenced to years or decades in federal prison — sentences that were supposed to be reserved for high-level offenders.
“As former chairman and long-serving member of the Judiciary Committee, I’ve seen first-hand just how muddled the criminal code is,” said Sensenbrenner. “It’s time to scrub it clean. The Over-Criminalization Task Force will review federal laws in Title 18, and laws outside of Title 18 that have not gone through the Judiciary Committee, to modernize our criminal code. In addition, I reintroduced the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act [not posted as of Tuesday] today, which would reform Title 18 of the US Code, reduce the existing criminal code by more than one-third, and update the code to make it more comprehensible.”
“Unduly expansive criminal provisions in our law unnecessarily drive up incarceration rates,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the committee’s ranking Democrat. “Almost one-quarter of the world’s inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only five percent of the world population. In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue.”
“Although crime is primarily a matter for states and localities to handle, over the last 40 or so years Congress has increasingly sought to address societal problems by adding criminal provisions to the federal code,” said Scott. “There are now over 4,000 federal criminal provisions, plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations which impose criminal penalties, often without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt. As a result, we are hearing many complaints of overuse and abusive uses of federal criminal laws from a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Today, we are establishing a bipartisan task force on over-criminalization to assess issues and make recommendations for improvements to the federal criminal system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this worthy endeavor.”
“This Task Force is a step in the right direction and could propose recommendations to significantly alleviate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the federal system,” said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The establishment of this Task Force is long overdue for the drug policy reform movement. It is past time for Congress to re-examine marijuana laws, conspiracy laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the appropriate role and use of the federal government’s resources.”
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