Monday, July 25, 2011

Overcriminalization: Over 4500 Federal Crimes

I've written in the past about overcriminalization. Among other things, I argued that blurring the line between criminal conduct and wrongs more appropriately dealt with under the civil law severely dilutes the expressive power of the former and erodes respect for the rule of law. A new article in the Wall Street Journal provides fresh ammunition:
By the turn of the 20th century, the number of [federal] criminal statutes numbered in the dozens. Today, there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, according to a 2008 study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker.
There are also thousands of regulations that carry criminal penalties.
Counting them is impossible. The Justice Department spent two years trying in the 1980s, but produced only an estimate: 3,000 federal criminal offenses.
The American Bar Association tried in the late 1990s, but concluded only that the number was likely much higher than 3,000.

Not surprisingly, the prison population has grown at an alarming rate: "the number of people sentenced to federal prison has risen nearly threefold over the past 30 years to 83,000 annually. The U.S. population grew only about 36% in that period. The total federal prison population, over 200,000, grew more than eightfold—twice the growth rate of the state prison population, now at 2 million ..."

In states like California, the overcrowding problem has resulted in plans to release prisoners in order to save money. Faced with a choice of spending more to keep criminals in jail or releasing them, a recent opinion poll showed that over 60% of respondents supported "reducing life sentences for third strike offenders convicted of property crimes such as burglary, auto theft and shoplifting." Over 70% supported "the early release of some low-level offenders whose crimes did not involve violence."

You can read the full article here. Irish lawmakers should consider this cautionary tale as they seek to adopt new laws aimed at showing the public that they are tough on crime.