Gavel and handcuffs

Overcriminalization turns ordinary people into lawbreakers

Lars Trautman writes for the Washington Examiner about the problems tied to overcriminalization.

Our country is in the midst of a crisis of criminality: At this very moment, more criminals are walking our streets than ever before. How is this possible, especially in light of the FBI’s latest statistics showing yet another drop in crime rates?

The answer lies not with the American people, but with our laws.

We have more criminals because, quite simply, we have turned everyday citizens into unwitting lawbreakers by adding layer upon layer to our criminal codes and turning nearly every conceivable misdeed into a criminal offense. Poor decisions become misdemeanors, misdemeanors evolve into felonies, and lives spin out of control in the process.

Perhaps nowhere is the absurdity of current law on better display than at the federal level. Educated guesses place the number of laws and regulations with criminal penalties at over 300,000, but no one can say with certainty how many there actually are. If the federal government with its trillions of dollars and millions of employees cannot keep track of all of these criminal penalties, what chance do ordinary people have?

Of course, this problem is hardly limited to our oft-maligned federal government. Criminal justice is largely a local affair. …

… The greater risk at the state and municipal level comes not from obscure laws that trip people up every now and then, but from those laws that are widely known and inconsistently applied. These are the statutes that most of us either routinely ignore without a second thought, such as speed limits, or knowingly violate from time to time with the hope that the transgression will not merit official involvement, such as marijuana possession. In either instance, though, our fate is subject to the whims of fortune and law enforcement discretion.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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