Congress Considers Over-Criminalization and Over-Federalization of Criminal Law

As noted at White Collar Criminal Prof Blog and The Justice Fellowship, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security held a hearing last week on "Over-criminalization of Conduct and Over-federalization of Criminal Law." Organizations which addressed the Subcommittee on issues of over-criminalization and over-federalization included the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.

The hearing considered the lack of distinction between federal criminal and civil offenses, as well as over-federalization of criminal law where federal criminal laws have been enacted to cover offenses already subject to state criminal laws, usually providing for harsher penalties. The Subcommittee noted the existence of approximately 4,500 federal criminal laws, with approximately 50 new criminal laws enacted by Congress each year.

The hearing should be welcome news to most federal criminal defense practitioners. Reform in these areas is badly needed. In some cases, certain prosecutions of alleged federal crimes would be more equitably, and less expensively, handled through the imposition of civil fines and penalties. Furthermore, in many cases, State prosecutorial entities are as capable as Federal entities to prosecute offenders in areas where State and Federal criminal law overlaps. The Blog looks forward to the proposals for reform which result from the hearing.

Senate Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009

Virginia Senator Jim Webb authored an article yesterday on HuffingtonPost entitled "Why We Must Reform Our Criminal Justice System," seeking support for a bill he has introduced in the Senate, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, S. 714. The bill sets forth findings, including:

1. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

2. The conditions under which Americans are incarcerated and the manner in which former inmates is a compelling national interest.

3. The American public and elected officials overwhelmingly support the punishment and incarceration of violent criminals, as well as those who direct and participate in criminal enterprises.

4. Minorities make up a disproportionately large share of the prison population.

5. The number of persons on probation and parole has been growing.

6. The number of ex-offenders re-entering society has risen.

7. Spending on corrections consumes an increasingly large portion of resources at all levels of government.

8. There are approximately 1,000,000 gang members in the United States who commit `as much as 80 percent of the crime in some locations'.

9. Gang activity and illegal drugs have resulted in unprecedented levels of sophisticated, organized violence along America's southern border and in hundreds of American communities.

10. Persons addicted to illegal drugs make up an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the drug using population.

11. Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1200 percent since 1980.

12. Prisons and jails nationwide have become holding facilities for the mentally ill.

13. Prisons have become public health risks.

14. 4.5 percent of all Federal and State inmates are sexually victimized.

The Act seeks to establish a "National Criminal Justice Commission," which "shall undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system, make findings related to current Federal and State criminal justice policies and practices, and make reform recommendations for the President, Congress, and State governments to improve public safety, cost-effectiveness, overall prison administration, and fairness in the implementation of the Nation's criminal justice system."

If enacted, the Commission will review all areas of Federal and State criminal justice, costs, practices, and policies. It will compare incarceration and re-entry policies in countries with similar political systems. The Commission will examine the impact of gang activity, drug policies, changes in policies regarding those who suffer from mental illness, and other areas relevant to a full understanding of the present criminal justice system in the United States. Surprisingly, the bill also calls for an examination of the historic role of the military, National Guard and reserves in crime prevention and the maintenance of border security.

The Commission will make recommendations for changes in policy to reduce incarceration rates, decrease prison violence, improve prison administration,  establish a system for the reintegration of exoffenders, restructure the approach to drug crimes and incarceration of drug offenders, improve the treatment of mental illness.

Senator Webb's bill represents hope for badly needed reform, especially in regard to drug offenses. It will be interesting to see the effect of the Commission, if passed, on areas such as federal sentencing, especially in view of developments in the past few years including the advisory nature of the Sentencing Guidelinesunder Blakely and Booker. The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill today. We will watch its progress with interest.