Land of the Free? A Web of Regulation is Turning Americans Into Criminals
While he was just trying to do his job, Lawrence Lewis, a janitor at a nursing home, became the unfortunate poster boy for overcriminalization.
People Who Thought They Were Minding Their Own Business
It all began one morning when the toilets backed up at the nursing home. This nasty problem wasn’t new. To keep the mess from becoming a health hazard, Lewis diverted the spillover to a storm drain.
Lewis was following the facility’s standard procedure. He believed that the storm drain led to the local water treatment plant. In reality, the pipe led to a major waterway, and Lewis was charged with violating the Clean Water Act.
It didn’t matter that Lewis had acted without criminal intent. To avoid prison, he entered a guilty plea, agreed to pay $2,500, and got probation. Probation officers checked on him without warning. Lewis also had to fill out statements about his salary and personal spending. Though he never meant to do anything wrong, Lewis’ actions earned him a criminal record.
Lewis’ case is not unusual. His story is just one example of a net that catches people who thought they were minding their own business. There are nearly 70 million Americans with a criminal record. They include a man convicted of importing lobster tails in plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes (a violation of the Lacey Act). They also include an elderly man from Texas who imported an endangered orchid worth $30. Three trucks of federal agents stormed his home. The government destroyed his business, and he served 17 months in prison.
The Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves. They abhorred abuses of power like these, and they crafted the U.S. Constitution to protect citizens from government overreach.
The founders knew that people in power tend to expand their control in the name of “the greater good.” The Framers also knew that such abuses would whittle away at “liberty, freedom, and justice for all.” And that would doom the democratic experiment.
Their fears were well-founded. Today, overcriminalization subjects Americans to a growing web of laws, regulations, and unfair punishments in the name of public safety. As author Harvey Silvergate points out in his book, “Three Felonies a Day,” the average American may commit a handful of crimes each day without knowing it. That should make us all uneasy.
Passing laws and fighting crime used to be the job of state and local governments. The first major federal criminal legislation was the Crimes Act of 1790. It mainly addressed crimes against the nation, like treason and spying. Today, however, there are more than 4,500 federal crimes. Many of these duplicate state crimes. Americans now need to be aware of federal, state, and local laws and regulations, all of which may have criminal penalties.
Because of overcriminalization, people like Lewis get caught in a system that doesn’t let them go without a price. Once in its grip, they often must rely on public defenders, desperate plea bargains, and steep fines just to try to get their lives back. It’s more of a shakedown than a fair, just process.
Giving Justice a Bad Name
The public servants who enforce the law did not sign up to be agents of government overreach. Most are committed professionals who want to keep the public safe. But they, too, are bound by the letter of the law — and even incentivized — to collect fines, make arrests, and bring charges for acts committed with no obvious criminal intent. These men and women, who put their lives on the line, should not be put in the position of enforcing bogus laws. Doing so undermines trust in government and gives “justice” a bad name.
Overcriminalization doesn’t make us any safer. Instead, it takes resources away from prosecuting truly serious crimes. And in the process, it has created a group of Americans who, because of their unfair criminal record, live on the margins, struggling to take care of themselves and their families.
Prison Fellowship seeks to improve the situation of these Americans. But it would be even better if we could halt the spread of overcriminalization that harms so many people for no good reason.
It’s time to protect our freedom from its greatest threat — the abuse of federal power to criminalize our daily lives. This so-called “justice” betrays the values many have died to defend.
Craig Deroche, former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, is the senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship.