Overcriminalization And Politics

The calls to "get tough" on crime have fortunately subsided in the current political climate. Many people have come to realize just how much damage has been done in the haste to appear to be doing something about criminal conduct. The number of Americans currently incarcerated is shocking. The damage done to their lives and to the lives of their loved ones cannot be measured. All the harsh penalties and new laws have not made Americans feel safer. They have simply sacrificed countless lives in the quest for more votes.

While many commentators on both sides of the political aisle agree on the need for criminal justice reform, an unfortunate divide is threatening to halt needed progress. The problem of overcriminalization, the overuse of criminal laws to punish people in ways not justified by their conduct, affects all Americans. Like many things, overcriminalization can be framed as an us-versus-them issue. Some present overcriminalization as a problem affecting business executives and white-collar criminals. Others present it as a problem affecting people arrested for petty drug crimes. An argument between the two presentations can easily distract from the basic truth that the United States has too many laws establishing criminal penalties for a wide range of activities. Overcriminalization is a problem, even when the people it hurts don't fit your personal definition of "victim."

From 2008 to 2013, the U.S. Code saw 439 new criminal offenses added. Legislators added, on average, nearly 1.5 new federal crimes per week. It is possible to commit a felony without ever having any idea that you did something wrong. The public perception of what a criminal look like does not fit with the reality of our current criminal justice system. Under the law, a criminal is anyone who draws the attention of a prosecutor or law enforcement official at any time. Politics should not matter in declaring that an unacceptable state of affairs.


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