The Over-Criminalization of American Life

While the corporate media devotes itself to sports, entertainment, dining out and the latest political kerfuffle, America has become the Over-Criminalization Capital of the World. The proliferation of laws and administrative regulations, federal, state and local, that carry criminal penalties has swollen into the tens of thousands.

The number of incarcerated Americans exceeds 2.3 million, with the majority being non-violent offenders–often for War on Drugs offenses.

Holly Harris has written an important summary of this profoundly destabilizing trend: The Prisoner Dilemma: Ending America’s Incarceration Epidemic (Foreign Affairs, registration required).

The over-criminalization of America is a relatively recent trend. As Harris notes:

It wasn’t always like this. In 1972, for every 100,000 U.S. residents, 161 were incarcerated. By 2015, that rate had more than quadrupled, with nearly 670 out of every 100,000 Americans behind bars.

The over-criminalization of America is rooted in federal laws and regulations, and state and local governments have followed suite. here is Harris’s account:

The burgeoning U.S. prison population reflects a federal criminal code that has spiraled out of control. No one—not even the government itself—has ever been able to specify with any certainty the precise number of federal crimes defined by the 54 sections contained in the 27,000 or so pages of the U.S. Code. In the 1980s, lawyers at the Department of Justice attempted to tabulate the figure “for the express purpose of exposing the idiocy” of the criminal code, as one of them later put it. The best they were able to come up with was an educated guess of 3,000 crimes. Today, the conservative Heritage Foundation estimates that federal laws currently enumerate nearly 5,000 crimes, a number that grows every year.

Overcriminalization extends beyond the law books, partly because regulations are often backed by criminal penalties. That is the case for rules that govern matters as trivial as the sale of grated cheese, the precise composition of chicken Kiev dishes, and the washing of cars at the headquarters of the National Institutes of Health. State laws add tens of thousands more such crimes. Taken together, they push the total number of criminally punishable offenses in the United States into the hundreds of thousands. The long arm of the law reaches into nearly every aspect of American life. The legal scholar Harvey Silverglate has concluded that the typical American commits at least three federal felonies a day, simply by going through his or her normal routine.

Federal policies reward states for building prisons and mandating harsher sentences:

…federal incentives for states that safely decrease their prison populations and reconsider ineffective sentencing regimes…would represent a stark reversal of legislation signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, which did just the opposite, offering federal dollars to states that imposed harsher criminal penalties and built more prisons, which contributed to the explosion of incarceration rates during the past two decades.

How did we become a Gulag Nation of tens of thousands of laws and regulations and mandatory harsh sentences for non-violent crimes–a society imprisoned for administrative crimes that aren’t even tried in our judiciary system? I would suggest two primary sources:

1. The relentless expansion of central-state power over every aspect of life. As I describe in my book Resistance, Revolution, Liberation: A Model for Positive Change,the state has only one ontological imperative: to expand its power and control.There are no equivalent mechanisms for reducing the legal/regulatory burdens imposed by the state; various reforms aimed at reducing the quantity of laws and regulations have not even made a dent in the over-criminalization of America.

The second dynamic is the political reality that the easiest way for politicos to be seen as “doing something” is to pass more laws and regulations criminalizing an additional aspect of life. The state and its elites justify the state’s relentless expansion of power and control by claiming problems can only be solved by centralizing power further and increasing the number and severity of penalties.

Criminalization is the ultimate expansion of the state’s monopoly on coercive violence. As the state expands its power to imprison or punish its citizens for an ever-wider range of often petty infractions, increasingly via a bureaucratic administrative process that strips the citizens of due process, another pernicious dynamic emerges: the informal application and enforcement of formal laws and regulations.

In other words, the laws and regulations are enforced at the discretion of the state’s officials. This is the systemic source of driving while black: a defective tail-light gets an African-American driver pulled over, while drivers of other ethnic origin get a pass.

This is also the source of America’s systemic blind eye on white-collar crimes while the War on Drugs mandates harsh sentences with a cruel vengeance.When there are so many laws and regulations to choose from, government officials have immense discretion over which laws and regulations to enforce.

Prosecutors seeking to increase their body count will use harsh drug laws to force innocents to accept plea bargains, while federal prosecutors don’t even pursue white-collar corporate fraud on a vast scale.

The over-criminalization of America has undermined justice, the rule of law and the bedrock notion that everyone is equal under the law, i.e. legal egalitarianism.

The over-criminalization of America breeds corruption as the wealthy and powerful evade the crushing burden of over-regulation by either buying political favors in our pay-to-play “democracy” (money votes, money wins) or by hiring teams of attorneys, CPAs, etc. to seek loopholes or construct a courtroom defense.

Meanwhile, the peasantry are offered a harsh plea bargain.

The over-criminalization of America is one core reason why the status quo has failed and cannot be reformed. That is the title of one of my short works, Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform, which explains why the ceaseless expansion of centralized power leads to failure and collapse. 

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  • andrew1212

    YES–I fully agree much too often politicians and the corrupt media rely on passing laws and hiring more officers instead of getting to the Root of the problems: poor eductaion/job training programs and lack of social welfare programs.

    I remember one police department began paying high risk youth–and found that giving them money every month kept them away from getting caught in the middle of gunfire which is far too common on our streets. The at-risk youth and young adults saw a future–and stayed away from bad situations on the street.

    The results were encouraging–lower number of at-risk youth/young adults killed. (I tried to find the episode of The Resident on RT which covered this–but can’t find it).

  • Zartan

    Federal Laws … But we are not persecuted by Federa LAWSl Alone!

    There are “TAX” State, Local, and City Laws, then we have LOCAL CODES and the MASSIVE included therein. Nobody can even come close to listing even a Fraction of the Laws. However, they can “all” be used to selectivly persecute!

    NO … America is no Bastion of Freedom, to even suggest such is Criminal, because America is a FULL BLOWN DICTATORSHIP FROM HELL!

    Yes, and I cannot even go fishing anymore, because of all the LAWS, ( AND LAW ENFORCEMENT IN CAMO Watching me FISH) nobody can list, but they will use to selectively persecute YOU. THE GESTAPO was nothing by Comparison! I cannot chance going fishing and being caught without papers, stamp, or license … Nevermind, all the Laws, Dictating how many fish, what size, and How many hooks and type of Hook I have on my Line.

    THERE ARE MILLIONS OF LAWS, PEOPLE … MILLIONS! And, all the Dictatorships in History combined and multiplied do not even come close!

    America has Obliterated my Rights to LIFE, LIBERTY and HAPPINESS!


    • Vergiertighe

      my best friend’s sister-in-law makes $77 per hour from home and she’s been fired from a job for seven months and last month her payment was $13529 just working on the internet for 3 hours each day.. ➤ see➤ this page

      • Zartan

        WARNING … “Do not click on the above link,” it is loaded with Malware!

  • TimeToWakeUPAmerica

    The Over-Criminalization of American Life? Of course, because the Western “elites” are complete PSYCHOPATHIC CONTROL-FREAKS! They established a system whereby THEY control the printing and issuance of the global currency supply ~ and thereby, THEY control the LEGAL SYSTEM, SECRET SOCIETIES, INTELLIGENCE AGENCIES, GOVERNMENTS, MAJOR MEDIA, the “EDUCATION” System ~ EVERYTHING!

    “There are none so enslaved as those who falsely believe that they are free” – Goethe

    Read _ALBION & ZION UNITED_, by Veronika Kuzniar.

  • Brain James

    Mar 2, 2015 OverCriminalized • Alternatives to Incarceration

    OverCriminalized profiles three promising and less expensive alternatives to incarceration that may actually change the course of people’s lives. It’s time to roll back mass criminalization and focus on what works.

  • Brain James

    Mar 3, 2017 Is Slave Labor Still Legal In America?

    Across the US, prisoners are required to work for little to no pay and are punished if they refuse. Is prison labor comparable to slave labor?

  • Zartan

    Why dont people fight back?

    Is Everyone Yellow?

    True Story,
    I once,entirely by myself, negotiated a +20-percent wage increase for everyone in an entire medical facility. I simply decided -enough was enough, and I commanded “ALL” to comply with me and their families will live better. Naturally, they never did a GD thing for me! However, I scoffed them down for accepting such POVERY and I shamed them! I WAS FURIOUS THAT I WAS STUCK WORKING FOR SUCH POVERTY BECAUSE OF THEM! I told the cowards to STFU! Everyone saw the light, because I helped them to see it! The Management knew, If demads were not met, the entire staff would walk and they were at serious risk from personal injury for offending me with such an ungodly wage!

    20-percent “WAGE INCREASE” … Instantly approved!

    This is how you take care of Business.

    You have to fight back or they will spit on you, People!