Priority Issues: Overcriminalization
I. The Issue
Thousands of harmless activities are now classified as crimes in the United States. These are not typical common law crimes such as murder, rape, or theft. Instead they encompass a series of business activities such as importing orchids without the proper paperwork, shipping lobster tails in plastic bags, and even failing to return a library book. There are over 4,000 existing federal criminal laws. (The exact number of laws is unknown because the attorneys at Congressional Research Service who were assigned to count them ran out of resources before they could complete the herculean task.)
In addition to the profusion of federal statutory crimes, there are additional state crimes (Texas alone has over 1,700), and federal regulatory offenses (approximately 300,000). The creation of these often unknowable and redundant crimes, the federalization of certain crimes traditionally prosecuted at the state level, and the removal of traditional mens rea requirements all contribute to a relentless trend known as overcriminalization.
II. The Impact
Significant differences between criminal and civil law make criminal law an overly blunt instrument for regulating non-fraudulent business activities. Whereas administrative rulemaking and civil proceedings may utilize a cost-benefit analysis to evaluate the conduct at issue, no such balancing occurs in criminal proceedings because, theoretically, criminal law covers only those activities that are inherently wrong.
Also, because criminal law is enforced entirely by state prosecution, it tends to minimize the role of the victim. Indeed, the prototypical “regulatory” offense does not include anyone actually being harmed as an element of the offense. Finally, civil and criminal law have traditionally been distinguished by the requirement that a criminal must have a guilty state of mind. An increasing number of regulatory offenses nevertheless dispense with this requirement or require mere criminal negligence rather than intentional, knowing, or reckless conduct.
III. The Conservative Solution
• Stop creating new criminal offenses as a method of regulating business activities. Regulation is better handled through fines and market forces, not the heavy stigma of criminal sanctions
• Avoid licensing new occupations and revise laws to eliminate criminal penalties that are currently associated with many occupations.
• Ensure that an appropriate culpable mental state is included in the elements of all offenses.
• Return the responsibility for prosecuting and punishing traditional crimes to the states.
• Revise criminal laws to remove ambiguities and consolidate redundant laws to help prevent prosecutorial abuse.
Arresting the Growth of Criminal Law in Texas by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Arresting the Runaway Growth in State Criminal Law by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Big Brother on the Beat: The Expanding Federalization of Crime by Ed Meese in the Texas Review of Law and Politics
The Burden of Immigration Laws on Business by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Can Someone Please Turn on the Lights? Bringing Transparency to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by Michael B. Mukasey and James C. Dunlop in Engage
Criminal Law Checklist for Federal Legislators by the Heritage Fouondation, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Washington Legal Foundation, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Criminal Law Checklist for State Legislators by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Criminal Minds: Defining Culpability in Michigan Criminal Law by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Engulfed by Environmental Crimes: Overcriminalization on the Gulf Coast by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
How Many Laws Did You Break This Week?: Overcriminalization in Colorado by the Independence Institute
Mens Rea and State Crimes by the Federalist Society
Not Just for Criminals: Overcriminalization in the Lone Star State by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Overextending the Criminal Law by the Cato Institute
Solutions for America: Overcriminalization by the Heritage Foundation
Time To Rethink What’s a Crime: So-Called Crimes are Here, There, and Everywhere by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Twelve Steps for Overcoming Overcriminalization by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law by the Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Working With Conviction: Criminal Offenses as Barriers to Entering Licensed Occupations in Texas by the Texas Public Policy Foundation
Overcriminalization in America: No Home for Justice
All Jack and his wife Jill Barron wanted was a home near their family for retirement. After going through all of the necessary permitting, they purchased the land where they intended to build. But soon the EPA alleged that the land might be a wetland and began restricting building on the site. Eventually the EPA […]:: Read More
Pat Nolan: Fear of Crime and the Prison Build Up
Pat Nolan, Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and Right on Crime Director of Outreach, talks about how being a former legislator and having served time in prison has made it clear for him to see the bureaucracy within the criminal justice system. This is a driving factor in his passion […]:: Read More
Marc Levin testifies before U.S. House Judiciary Commitee
Marc Levin, Policy Director of Right on Crime, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee on the subject of over-criminalization. Click here to watch the hearing.:: Read More
Levin, Cohen: The End of Penal ‘One-Upmanship’
Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin and Policy Analyst Derek Cohen write in The Crime Report: The National Academies’ exhaustive report, “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” released last month, covers nearly the entire body of scholarship on the causes of the incarceration boom. The causes, as identified by […]:: Read More
Getting Rid of Unnecessary Laws: TPPF’s PO2014
Shannon Edmonds, Director of Governmental Relations at TDCAA, Paul Larkin, Senior Legal Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Representatives Bryan Hughes and Jeff Leach of the Texas House of Representatives discuss the burden of overcriminalization during the panel “Getting Rid of Unnecessary Laws” at TPPF’s Policy Orientation 2014.:: Read More
The Felonization of America
With an avalanche of state-based initiatives to reform the criminal justice system, it is easy to ignore happenings at the federal level. Unfortunately, the felonization of America continues virtually unnoticed. Federal statutes with vast reach put millions of Americans at risk of being fined or imprisoned, with much damage already done. Cambridge Attorney Harvey Silverglate […]:: Read More
Right On Crime in Texas Monthly
In response to Governor Perry’s remarks concerning the decriminalization of marijuana, this article by Texas Monthly credits Right On Crime’s reform policies with helping to reduce Texas’ incarceration rates. “Texas’s recent reforms on drug policy are summarized at the Right on Crime initiative, which began here, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and has since spread […]:: Read More
The New York Times: “America on Probation”
“Restoring common sense to sentencing is the obvious first step in downsizing prisons.” In his latest op-ed, Bill Keller of The New York Times, writes about the issue of mass incarceration in the U.S. and what our nation can do to reverse this trend. The ROC statement of principles is also cited in the article […]:: Read More
A coalition on prisons
Louisiana leads the nation in incarceration. The state’s prison population doubled during the past couple of decades. As discussed in The Advocate, Kevin Kane of the Pelican Institute, along with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, are working to reverse this trend. Click here to read the article.:: Read More
The Huffington Post: ‘The Next Big National Policy Shift in One Chart’
“Led by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, Right on Crime seeks to reduce the number of prisons and prisoners to fight crime, prioritize victims, and protect taxpayers.” Click here to read the article.:: Read More
View More from Overcriminalization »