The House Judiciary Committee this week approved a new, bipartisan task force aimed at streamlining the federal criminal code.
The Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013, made up of five Democrats and five Republicans, will comb through the labyrinth of federal regulations and identify unnecessary and ineffective criminal statutes.
At present, there are an estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. Code, many of which address conduct also regulated by the states. The number of federal criminal offenses increased by 30 percent between 1980 and 2004, according to a recent study by the Federalist Society. There were 452 new federal criminal offenses enacted between 2000 and 2007, averaging 56.5 new crimes per year. And over the past three decades, Congress has been averaging 500 new crimes per decade.
Too many of those new offenses often impose criminal penalties without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt, lawmakers complained.
“Over-criminalization is an issue of liberty,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) in a statement. “As federal criminal laws and regulations have increased, so has the number of Americans who have found themselves breaking the law with no intent of doing so. Americans who make innocent mistakes should not be charged with criminal offenses.”
The proliferation in federal crimes unnecessarily drives up incarceration rates and has contributed to overcrowding in the nation’s prisons, experts say.
The Congressional Research Service found in a recent report that the federal prison population has grown by almost 790 percent since 1980. The Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) is operating at almost 40 percent over capacity, the report continued. The number of inmates under its jurisdiction has increased from approximately 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 219,000 in 2012, an average rise of 6,100 inmates per year.
“Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population,” the report concluded. The surge in incarceration rates was attributable to “changes in federal sentencing and correctional policy [which] include increasing the number of federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences; changes to the federal criminal code that have made more crimes federal offenses; and eliminating parole.”
The changes in judicial policy have unduly impacted African Americans and makes America a leader in incarceration worldwide, said the committee’s Ranking Member John Conyers ( D-Mich).
“Almost one-quarter of the world’s inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only 5 percent of the world population,” he stated. “In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue.”
As the number of federal criminal laws has increased, a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has complained about the overuse and abusive uses of these laws.
The ACLU welcomed the news of the bipartisan task force as a “positive step toward breaking our country's addiction to incarceration.”
"Sending people to prison should be the option of last resort, not the first," said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU legislative counsel, in a statement. "Over the last couple of years, we've seen a bipartisan consensus emerge around the idea that we waste billions of dollars on a criminal justice system that just isn't working. This task force has an opportunity to protect the civil liberties of the many Americans who are locked up unnecessarily and with no benefit to public safety every day. We’re optimistic this will lead to real reform."