In-Depth: Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to get rid of laws that arguably never should’ve been enacted in the first place:
“While we need to make sure that there are appropriate punishments for illegal activity, people should not be criminally prosecuted for honest mistakes or benign behavior. Over the last few decades, there has been a significant expansion of the federal criminal code, and that has led to the criminalization of some activities that simply should not be crimes, such as unauthorized use of an emblem or slogan or the transportation of dentures. Our legislation will help to simplify and streamline the federal criminal code by eliminating several unnecessary and trivial criminal penalties.”
House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte added that the federal criminal code is currently bloated due to outdated crimes:
“There is a reason that the Federal criminal code contains nearly 5,000 criminal statutes today. It is because, over the years, when Congress has been faced with a problem, it has all too often enacted a Federal statute creating a new crime. These ‘crimes du jour’ may be outdated, ill-drafted, or, frankly, ridiculous. However, they still exist in the criminal code.”
The Heritage Foundation supports this bill, which Jonathan Zalewski argues is needed to combat overcriminalization and ensure that laws are properly enforced:
“Have you ever asked yourself how many federal criminal laws there are on the books in this country? Perhaps not, as that might be a question only criminal law scholars and lawyers ask themselves. But it is an interesting inquiry, because nobody knows the answer. That’s right. No one—not even the federal government—is certain of exactly how many federal criminal laws are currently on the books, but some rough estimates have concluded that there are more than 5,000 criminal laws scattered through the U.S. Code. That’s a problem. First, it’s a problem because, as two of my Heritage Foundation colleagues have noted, ‘An elementary rule of constitutional law is that government must afford the public fair notice of the conduct defined as criminal so that the average person, without resort to legal advice, can comply with the law.’ How can the federal government possibly give the average person fair notice of the law if the government itself doesn’t know what laws exist? Second, as a societal issue, the vast—yet unknown—number of federal criminal laws in our country is a problem because of the phenomenon of overcriminalization. Overcriminalization is ‘the overuse and abuse of criminal law to address every social problem and punish every mistake.’ Heritage scholars, for many years, have explained how and why overcriminalization is antithetical to the rule of law and a free society…. Yes, a more comprehensive review and repeal of unnecessary laws in the federal criminal code is the ideal solution, but even a piecemeal approach like the Clean Up the Code Act of 2018 is an effective starting point.”
In 1998, an American Bar Association (ABA) task force reported that the body of federal criminal laws as “so large… that there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes.” At that time, the ABA task force estimated that there were over 3,000 federal criminal offenses in the U.S. Code. Today, there are around 4,500 federal criminal statutes in the U.S. Code — an increase of approximately 1,500 over a 20-year period.
In the current Congress, this bill has one cosponsor, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA). Last Congress, it passed the House by a 386-5 vote with the support of two bipartisan cosponsors, one Republican and one Democrat.
Of Note: The U.S. Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of U.S. general and permanent laws. It’s updated on an ongoing basis, and the print version of the Code is updated once a year. In 2015, the U.S. had approximately 300,000 federal regulations and about 4,500 federal criminal statutes on the books carrying fines or prison terms for offenders.
In the 113th Congress, House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) put together a bipartisan overcriminalization task force led by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and ranking member Bobby Scott (D-VA) to examine federal criminal laws and make recommendations for reform. The task force held ten hearings.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Llgorko)