Too Many Rules? Congress Votes on Criminalization Laws

In the midst of swirling controversy surrounding Congressional action on tax rate extensions, "don't ask, don't tell," and the DREAM Act, the House will vote today on an issue on which both conservatives and liberals are surprisingly united: overcriminalization.

The House will vote Wednesday on a rule change that would require any bill carrying a criminal penalty to be reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee before it goes to the House floor for a vote. Two former attorneys generals have sent a letter to incoming House speaker John Boehner urging Congress to approve the bill, saying that current criminal laws "trap average Americans and hamstring American businesses."

For example, Abner "Abbie" Schoenwetter, a Florida seafood broker, testified before a Congressional committee in September about how he had purchased lobster that, unbeknownst to him, had failed to meet certain regulations. For his transgressions, Schoenwetter ended up serving almost eight years in prison.

Hence: "overcriminalization."

The letter, signed by former attorneys general Edwin Meese (who served in the Reagan administration) and Dick Thornburgh (who served in the first Bush administration) asserts that criminal law provisions are often passed without being reviewed by the Judiciary Committee and end up severely punishing individuals and businesses for non-violent, non-drug-related crimes that often are less serious than the punishment suggests.

Both conservative and liberal organizations - from the Heritage Foundation to the A.C.L.U. - have expressed concern with this overcriminalization phenomenon, claiming that federal criminal laws are too vague, too numerous, and too unregulated to effectively prosecute crimes and administer accurate punishments.

Requiring any new criminal legislation to be reviewed, proponents say, would curb the sheer number of confusing criminal laws, protect Americans from being prosecuted for non-criminal content, and even cut down on the number of Americans currently incarcerated.

"The criminal law is unique," the letter reads. "No other law carries with it the potential of depriving an average American's personal liberty through a prison sentence; destroying his or her career, livelihood, and reputation; and denying his or her constitutional rights."

"The best solution," the letter also reads, "would be for the new Republican majority to adopt a rule requiring automatic sequential referral to the Judiciary Committee of any bill that adds or modifies a crime."