The House Judiciary Committee's Over-Criminalization Task Force held its first meeting Friday, hearing from four witnesses about why lawmakers should reduce the number of reasons a citizen can be fined or imprisoned.
The task force's efforts are being supported by diverse interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Heritage Foundation. The task force is led by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., and has 10 members evenly divided along party lines.
"At present the United States Code contains approximately 4,500 federal crimes, as well as innumerable regulations and rules, many of which carry severe fines and jail time for violations," Sensenbrenner said in his opening remarks. "Over the past three decades Congress has created an average of 500 new crimes per decade."
The Republican congressman cited two cases in his remarks, including one in which a Virginia girl's mother was fined $500 after saving a woodpecker from being eaten by the family cat - unknowingly violating the Migratory Bird Act - and another case where a Texas retiree was imprisoned for 2 years when he couldn't produce paperwork for his orchid collection.
Sensenbrenner said "many of the crimes on the books are antiquated or redundant, some are poorly drafted and some have not been used in the last 30 years."
Scott, the Democrat from Virginia, quoted studies by the conservative Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation, saying the country was "averaging one new crime a week over the last few decades," including thousands of federal regulations that "lack the adequate criminal intent" requirement for conviction.
"Over the past 40 years Congress has increasingly federalized crimes already covered by state law," Scott said, which "places the individual in an extremely negative and precarious position."
Scott specifically expressed his intention to focus on what he called "vague, far-reaching" laws and prosecutions that weren't justified. He also said it was worth considering changes to federal carjacking and drug laws.
William Shepherd, chairman of American Bar Association's criminal justice section, said "there are too many criminal laws."
Shepherd spoke about a Florida fisherman who was convicted for allegedly destroying three out of his haul of 72 grouper fish before they were reinspected by fishing regulators.
"My guess would be that Congress had no idea that a post-Enron anti-document-shredding statute would be used to convict a man of destroying three red grouper," said Shepherd. "The laws that you draft get applied by real people and impact real lives in ways that you may have no idea would be the ultimate goal and ultimate effect."
Shepherd said the ABA supports sensible reforms and suggested that bureaucrats lose their power to draft regulations that could bring jail terms.
"Those laws should be drafted by you," he said, "instead of being delegated to career people ... with a narrow focus and perhaps not a broader perspective," he said.
George Terwilliger, deputy attorney general during the first Bush administration, suggested that Congress pass an "overriding provision of law" requiring juries to determine that a defendant in any federal criminal case be found to have had criminal intent.
"We have lost sight of the proper use of federal criminal law as a carefully applied tool to protect the means and instrumentalities of commerce," said Terwilliger.
Steven Benjamin of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said that approximately 65 million Americans are "stigmatized by a criminal conviction." That's "not because we are a country of law-breakers or criminals," he said.
John Malcolm of The Heritage Foundation testified that unjust prosecutions cause Americans to lose respect for the legal system.
It's unclear how successful the over-criminalization task force will be at achieving its stated goals. Reason magazine noted in May that some of the task force's members have been particularly hesitant or hostile to reforming marijuana laws, for example.
But the ACLU is hopeful about the process.
"At a time of historically low rates of crime, the federal prison system is operating at almost 40 percent over capacity," the civil liberties group noted in a Friday statement. "A recent report by the Congressional Research Service found that the federal prison population has grown by almost 790 percent since 1980."