Criminal code needs serious overhaul

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Of the many government systems that need overhaul, the federal criminal code ranks among the most bloated.
Congress has created 500 new federal crimes per decade for the last 30 years. From 1980 to 2004, the number of criminal offenses increased by 30 percent.
Many of those new laws junked a long-standing legal principal known as mens rea: for a person to be guilty of a crime, he must have intended to commit one.
Combined with mandatory minimum sentences, such zealous pursuit of convictions has led to an explosion in the federal prison population: From 2000 to 2011, the number of people held in federal prisons skyrocketed by 53 percent.
A country that already sends its citizens to prison at a higher rate than any other nation in the world desperately needs to find ways to keep people out of the penitentiary, rather than creating laws to put more people in.
America’s soaring incarceration rate comes with staggering costs to taxpayers, to our legal and prison system, to those whose lives crumble following a federal conviction, and to the families they leave behind while serving mandatory minimum sentences.
Hurray, then, for a bipartisan task force formed by the House Judiciary Committee, led by U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, and Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
The panel will review federal criminal code in an effort to streamline it, the first such attempt in half a century. Their work offers an opportunity for change that both Republicans and Democrats can support: reducing the size of government while revamping an overreaching criminal code.
The bipartisan panel won’t agree on everything; already it’s clear that Scott and Sensenbrenner, at least, fail to see eye to eye on mandatory minimum sentences. Scott argues that they neither deter crime nor make communities safer, while contributing to the disintegration of families. Sensenbrenner holds that mandatory minimums prevent judge-shopping. But they also remove any discretion from the judge hearing the case, who might know more about the particulars of a crime and the individual answering for it than, say, Congress.
That the committee will talk about the matter nonetheless represents progress. Change on mandatory minimums could also come from other quarters: A bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul and Patrick Leahy seeks to eliminate federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug users.
Members of the House over-criminalization committee will look for areas in which federal and state codes overlap. And they will try to make it harder to convict people who didn’t know they were doing something wrong: like the girl who briefly caged a woodpecker she rescued from her cat, only to be fined more than $500, a penalty that was later rescinded.
The committee’s review has been a long time coming; it represents nothing less than an opportunity to address, wholesale, a system that has led to the United States’ wretched distinction as jailer of its people.
Spending six months on a line-by-line review of the federal criminal code could save billions of dollars on building and maintaining prisons. Committee members should also remember that the mundane work of eliminating redundancy and adhering to a legal principle with a fusty Latin name also means saving years from lives spent in prison.

This Landmark News Service editorial was originally published in The Virginian-Pilot.