Overcriminalization is a dangerous trend that NACDL battles daily. With over 4,450 crimes scattered throughout the federal criminal code, and untold numbers of federal regulatory criminal provisions, our nation's addiction to criminalization backlogs our judiciary, overflows our prisons, and forces innocent individuals to plead guilty not because they actually are, but because exercising their constitutional right to a trial is prohibitively expensive and too much of a risk. This inefficient and ineffective system is, of course, a tremendous taxpayer burden.
Although the harm caused by overcriminalization is frequently amplified by the executive and judicial branches, it generally originates in the legislative process. It can take many forms, but most frequently occurs through:
- Ambiguous criminalization of conduct without meaningful definition or limitation;
- Enacting criminal statutes lacking meaningful mens rea requirements;
- Imposing vicarious liability with insufficient evidence of personal awareness or neglect;
- Expanding criminal law into economic activity and regulatory and civil enforcement areas;
- Creating mandatory minimum sentences un-related to the wrongfulness or harm of the underlying crime;
- Federalizing crimes traditionally reserved for state jurisdiction; and
- Adopting duplicative and overlapping statutes.
Congress recently took an important step to address this issue by adopting a change to the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives that will afford the House Judiciary Committee the opportunity to exercise its jurisdiction over any bill that proposes or modifies a new or existing criminal law or penalty. NACDL has long advocated for precisely this kind of reform in its efforts to combat overcriminalization and the overfederalization of crime. NACDL and its coalition partners submitted a joint letter endorsing the change in advance of the relevant votes by the leadership conference and the full House.
In May 2013 Congress established the Overcriminalization Task Force within the House Judiciary Committee. The Task Force held hearings on a variety of overcriminalization topics and convened its final hearings in July 2014. To learn more about the Task Force, including video of its hearings and official witness testimony, click here.
Shana-Tara Regon, NACDL's Director of White Collar Crime Policy, spoke with Ivan Dominguez, host of NACDL's Criminal Docket Podcast series, about the Overcriminalization Task Force. The podcast, entitled "Congress's Overcriminalization Task Force," discusses the work the task force has done so far and the critically important work that lies ahead. The podcast is available below and on NACDL's Criminal Docket page.
Watch the videos below to learn how overcriminalization twists our criminal justice system into an inefficient, ineffective, and expensive burden on our society:
NACDL has played a key role in developing an ideologically diverse coalition of organizations that has worked successfully to shine a spotlight on this problem—whether in Congress, the press or academia—and, importantly, to give overcriminalization victims a voice.
Visit our "Face of Overcriminalization" page to learn the personal stories of these everyday people who have fallen prey to our broken system.
The harm caused by overcriminalization is frequently amplified by the executive and judicial branches. However, as demonstrated by NACDL's ground-breaking joint report "Without Intent: How Congress Is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law," it originates through systematic failures in the legislative process. And, just as the problem begins with Congress, so must any meaningful reform.
Listen to the experts below as they discuss the recommendations of the report and outline possible solutions to the overcriminalization problem:
NACDL is fully committed to stemming and reversing the tide of overcriminalization. To learn more about NACDL's efforts to tackle this problem and foster meaningful reform, visit our "Advocacy and Scholarship" page.
Pictured: NACDL White Collar Crime Policy Counsel and Without Intent Co-Author Tiffany M. Joslyn, joined at the Without Intent release press conference on May 5, 2010, by (left to right) NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer, Hon. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Hon. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, and Heritage Foundation Senior Legal Research Fellow and Without Intent Co-Author Brian W. Walsh.