America needs to curb excessive criminalization of its people, according to the chair of the American Bar Association.
“Reducing over-criminalization saves taxpayer money and improves the lives of all citizens,” said ABA Chairman William Shepherd.
America clearly needs a comprehensive review of the over-use of criminal law, said Shepherd, who represents more than 400,000 attorneys nationally. He made the comment in a June 2013 appearance before the House Task Force on Over-Criminalization.
Inappropriately federalized crimes cause serious problems in the administration of justice, according to Shepherd. The federal legal system is facing the same problems states are facing. One of the principal problems is that inappropriately federalized crimes threaten the fundamental allocation of responsibility between state and federal governments.
“Reducing over-criminalization saves taxpayer
money and improves the lives of all citizens”
Testimony included facts about other ABA authorities. As an example, one aspect of the overuse of federal law in criminal prosecutions is that it increases unreviewable federal prosecutorial discretion. The immense number of laws are traps to the unwary and threaten people who would never consider breaking the law, former Attorney General Edwin Meese said at the ABA Fall Conference.
Shepherd said there are many examples of laws that impose criminal penalties, including jail or imprisonment, without a requirement to find criminal intent.
Shepherd said over-criminalization factors into the mass incarceration cost to taxpayers. According to his testimony, in 2011 there were nearly 7 million offenders under supervision in the United States adult penal system.
With more than 2.2 million in prison or jail, almost half are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, studies show. Reducing prison populations has shown no marked increase in crime or effect on public safety, according to the three-judge panel overseeing California’s prison overcrowding problem.
Taxpayers spend about $53.5 billion to maintain state prisons (20 percent in California alone), and another $6.5 billion for federal prisons, reports the VERA Institute of Justice. The federal government houses more than 200,000 people for about $6.5 billion, while the state of California houses about 120,000 people for twice that figure, the institute reported.
Shepherd said the impact is far greater than just the unnecessary financial burdens shouldered by taxpayers. It is clear there is much damage to the lives of those incarcerated in the over-criminalization binge, said Shepherd. He said that incarceration has been proven to have a negative impact on future income, employment prospects and family of those affected.
The VERA Institute cites evidence-based statistics which it says show there is virtually no evidence to support assumptions that prison sentences affect crime, recidivism, or public safety.