On October 4, 2017, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (“SRCA”) was reintroduced in the Senate with bipartisan support. A version of the bill was first introduced in the Senate in October of 2015, but never received a vote. If signed into law, SRCA would reduce and restrict enhanced penalties for non-violent repeat drug offenders and eliminate the so-called “three-strike” mandatory life provision. SRCA also would apply to pending cases, “where the offense was committed before the date of enactment of this Act,” if a sentence has not been imposed as of the date of enactment,[1] and, would apply to past cases where, before the date of enactment, the defendant “was convicted of an offense for which the penalty is amended…and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for the offense.”[2] Imprisonment terms may be reduced only if, “the defendant has not been convicted of any serious violent felony, and the sentencing court, after considering the nature and seriousness of the danger to any person, the community, or any crime victims, and the post sentencing conduct of the defendant, finds a reduction is consistent with SRCA and its amendments.”[3] This bill would also provide judicial discretion in the sentencing of certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.[4]

The SRCA is just the beginning of a much-needed conversation regarding reform of the criminal justice system. This post, the first in a series of posts on criminal justice reform, will focus on overcriminalization. For the purposes of this blog post, “overcriminalization,” means “the act of imposing unbalanced penalties with no relation to the gravity of the offense committed or the culpability of the wrong doer. It is the imposition of excessive punishment or sentences without adequate justification.”[5]

Over the past forty years, America has seen a dramatic increase in duplicative federal criminal laws.[6] While many have sought to enumerate federal crimes, the exact count remains unknown.[7] One estimate suggests that there are more than 4,000 federal criminal statutes.[8] Many of these statutes, include mandatory minimums.[9] With the use of mandatory minimums on the rise, the federal prison population has increased tenfold and the average federal sentence more than doubled since 1980.[10] The effects of overcriminalization do not end with the criminal code and excessive mandatory minimums; as many as 300,000 regulatory offenses now have criminal penalties that include prison time.[11]

If SRCA is signed into law, then the Attorney General will be required to submit a comprehensive list of “all criminal statutory offenses” to Congress, within one year.[12] Such a list will be the first of many tools available to begin reining in the ever-expanding criminal code and regulatory offenses.

Overcriminalization does not just affect those who end up behind bars, but also those who are unreasonably prosecuted. A few examples:

  • Bobby Unser, retired racecar driver was prosecuted by federal authorities for driving his snowmobile on protected federal land. Unser and a friend got lost during a snowstorm and were seeking shelter or assistance.[13]
  • In a Ft. Lauderdale park, members of a Christian outreach group were arrested and prosecuted for feeding the homeless. Local rules restricted food sharing.[14]
  • Christian Stanfield, who suffers from ADHD and was a victim of extreme bullying at South Fayette High School, PA, was charged with disorderly conduct under a wiretapping statute, because he recorded the abuse and went to school officials. Charges were eventually dropped.[15]

As these examples show, current application of criminal statutes reaches even the most innocent and sympathetic of “offenders.” Surely the statutes that produced these prosecutions were not intended to criminalize self-protection or charitable acts, and yet they did.[16],[17]

Overcriminalization needs to be stopped and reversed. Legislation like SRCA is a good first step.

Katie Parr is law clerk at Cause of Action Institute.

[1] Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, S.1917, 115th Cong. (1st Sess. 2017)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] U.S. Legal, https://definitions.uslegal.com/o/over-criminalization/

[6] Cato Institute, Cato Handbook for Policymakers, Chapter 17, Overcriminalization, 8th ed. 2017.

[7] See Ilya Shapiro, Not Everything Can Be a Federal Crime, Cato Institute (March 8, 2012), https://www.cato.org/blog/not-everything-can-be-federal-crime

[8] Overcriminalization, Right on Crime, http://rightoncrime.com/category/priority-issues/overcriminalization/

[9] FAMM, What are Mandatory Minimums?, http://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chart-All-Fed-MMs-NW.pdf

[10] See 4, Erik Luna, Reforming Criminal Justice, Punishment, Incarceration and Release, Mandatory Minimums, 2017, at 137.

[11] Supra note 6 at 1.

[12] Supra note 1, at 1.

[13] Cato, supra note 4 at 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Sasha Goldstein, Criminal charge dropped against Pennsylvania bullying victim with learning disability who recorded his abusers, New York Daily News (April 14, 2014), http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/charge-dropped-penn-bullying-victim-recorded-abusers-article-1.1760448

[16] Luna, supra note 5 at 133.

[17] With overcriminalization on the rise, the potential for undercriminalization may also rise. As Douglas Husak put it, “some conduct that should not incur penal liability will be subject to it, and some conduct that should incur penal liability will not be subject to it.” 1, Douglas Husak, Reforming Criminal Justice, Introduction and Criminalization, Overcriminalization, 2017, at 28.