The Economist has a devastatingly powerful attack on the U.S.: Too many laws, too many prisoners. Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little
This is a must read and it should be used to hold lawmakers accountable.
As a proportion of its total population, America incarcerates five times more people than Britain, nine times more than Germany and 12 times more than Japan. Overcrowding is the norm. Federal prisons house 60% more inmates than they were designed for. State lock-ups are only slightly less stuffed.
The system has three big flaws, say criminologists. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.
In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with todayâ€™s one in 100.
We have been through an orgy of legislators passing criminal penalties and prosecutors pushing for maximums, regardless of the costs.
Jim Felman, a defence lawyer in Tampa, Florida, says America is conducting â€œan experiment in imprisoning first-time non-violent offenders for periods of time previously reserved only for those who had killed someoneâ€.
And the results of this experiment include enormous incarceration costs and enormous medical costs as we end up locking up more old people than ever before, as well as the increased danger of incarcerating innocents (as fear of being locked up for decades sometimes pushes innocent people to plead guilty).
Plus, sometimes people don’t even know that they broke the law!
There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. […] In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.
â€œThe founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attackâ€”a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether itâ€™s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,â€ writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar.
If we’re supposed to obey the laws (which reasonably assumes that we should know what they are), then it seems to me that lawmakers shouldn’t be allowed to pass any more criminal penalties unless they can recite all the ones that are already on the books.