United States Congress takes steps to tackle overcriminalization

Too many federal laws creates dangerous situation for ordinary citizens

The U.S. Congress recently adopted a rules change that could have a long-lasting impact on the criminal justice system throughout the country. In an effort to combat the growing problem of overcriminalization, the rules change now gives the House Judiciary Committee greater oversight over the creation or modification of federal criminal laws, according to the Wall Street Journal. Experts say the change is an important first step in stemming the increasingly unmanageable number of federal offenses, which have led to a state of overcriminalization and an overly bloated prison population.

Greater oversight

Under the rules change, the House Judiciary Committee will be able to review and modify any federal criminal law passed by Congress. Such oversight will help ensure that criminal laws are better written and that they do not run afoul of or simply repeat existing laws. Greater oversight would also lead to a more efficient and less confusing criminal justice system.

One concern that would be addressed through the rules change is criminal intent. A recent study of 446 proposed laws for nonviolent, nondrug offenses in 2005 and 2006 found that over half of them lacked a criminal intent requirement. Such a requirement, considered fundamental to a criminal justice system, helps ensure that people cannot be convicted of a crime if they were not actually aware they were committing an offense. The requirement is especially important when it comes to enforcing obscure laws that are not widely known.

Too many crimes

As the Philadelphia Inquirer recently pointed out, overcriminalization is a pervasive problem on both the state and federal levels. In fact, one study estimates that 70 percent of adults in the country have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. Obviously, most such offenses are committed without people knowing they have actually broken the law.

In fact, the problem is so bad that the U.S. Justice Department itself does not know precisely how many federal criminal offenses are currently on the books. In 1989, the Justice Department estimated there were about 3,000 federal offenses, but that estimate excluded regulations that can also lead to imprisonment. Another study estimates that the total number of federal regulations that can lead to criminal punishments is over 300,000. Legal experts and civil rights activists say the unwieldy number of offenses has led to a prison overpopulation problem that tears communities and families apart and places a massive financial burden on taxpayers.

Criminal defense

The staggering number of criminal laws should serve as a reminder that just about anybody can find themselves charged with a criminal offense. Facing a criminal charge is often a frightening and overwhelming experience and a conviction can lead to repercussions that last a lifetime.

Anybody charged with a criminal offense needs to contact a defense attorney immediately. The knowledge and experience of the criminal justice system that only an attorney can provide is often the key to protecting a defendant's rights and reputation following a criminal charge.