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Streamlining the Criminal Code


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Under today's federal code, you could be committing a crime without even knowing it. There are an estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. Code. Over the past three decades, Congress has enacted an average of 500 new crimes per decade.

This rapid expansion of the U.S. Code is often referred to as "over-criminalization." Over-criminalization of the justice system has brought with it an ever-increasing labyrinth of federal regulations, often which impose criminal penalties without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt. In many cases, it is fair to say that the criminal system is as clear as mud.

As federal criminal laws and regulations have increased, so has the number of Americans who have found themselves breaking the law with no intention of doing so. You may have even seen these stories on the news or read an article about someone who has been affected by this issue. Numerous examples, including a man charged with trespassing on a federally protected wilderness area while trying to dodge a blizzard on his snowmobile, are evidence of the extensiveness of the criminal code.

One example closer to home is that of an 11-year-old girl from Fredericksburg, Va. who tried to save an injured baby woodpecker from the family cat. However, her actions led to her mother facing a $535 dollar fine from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and possible jail time for unlawfully taking a migratory bird. The family had no way of knowing the bird was endangered and had no ill intent, yet the mother was charged nonetheless. Fortunately, the charge was eventually withdrawn. This example, along with a plethora of others, shows that we need to take a close look at the laws on the books to make sure Americans who make innocent mistakes are not charged with criminal offenses. Our federal law enforcement agencies need to focus on real criminals with real criminal intent.

In order to review and investigate the criminal code in detail, the House Judiciary Committee voted to create a bipartisan Over-Criminalization Task Force. The task force is authorized for six months and will hold hearings and report back to the Committee with their recommendations on how to improve outdated, repetitive, and inconsistent federal criminal statutes. As Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I will serve as a member of the task force.

Over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We need to take a closer look at our laws and regulations to make sure that they protect freedom and civil liberties, work as efficiently and fairly as possible, and do not unnecessarily duplicate state efforts. I look forward to working with the members of this task force to put forth a common sense proposal to streamline the federal code.

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