Tag: overcriminalization

The Growing Chorus for Criminal Justice Reform

The American criminal justice system has long been flawed. This probably isn’t news to you. What is news is the emergence of a broad chorus of organizations and leaders from across the political spectrum speaking out in support of serious reform. A few examples:

The Smart on Crime Coalition released its recommendations (and in pdf) for the 112th Congress, providing ways that the federal government can help fix the criminal justice system. Congress creates, on average, a new criminal offense every week. The urge to overcriminalize just about everything needs to be replaced with serious thought about how broadly Congress writes laws so that the drive to lock up a few bad actors does not make felons of a large portion of the citizenry.

The Smart on Crime report also points out the need for reform of asset forfeiture laws, building on the excellent Policing for Profit report produced by the Institute for Justice last year.

Conservatives see the need for reform as well. Right on Crime makes the case for a number of policy changes that not only focus law enforcement resources but aim to save taxpayer dollars.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a signatory to Right on Crime’s Statement of Principles, points to recent reforms in Texas at National Review:

When the Lone Star State’s incarceration rates were cut by 8 percent, the crime rate actually dropped by 6 percent. Texas did not simply release the prisoners, however. Instead, it placed them under community supervision, in drug courts, and in short-term intermediate sanctions and treatment facilities. Moreover, it linked the funding of the supervision programs to their ability to reduce the number of probationers who returned to prison. These strategies saved Texas $2 billion on prison construction. Does this mean Texas has gotten “soft on crime”? Certainly not. The Texas crime rate has actually dropped to its lowest level since 1973.

The lesson from Texas is that conservatives can push reforms that both keep Americans safe and save money, but only if we return to conservative principles of local control, performance-based funding, and free-market innovation.

As Radley Balko recently wrote at Reason, there are points where libertarians and conservatives will differ, but there is cause for optimism in the recognition that we can’t continue to lock up so many of our citizens. The United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet 23% of the world’s reported prisoners. Hopefully Jim Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act will end his Senate career on a positive note, and prompt serious changes to the way that the states and federal government deal with crime.

To gain an appreciation of the scope of the problem, check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.

Brian Aitken Pardon Decision Pending

In a recent post I discussed the plight of Brian Aitken, a New Jersey resident currently serving seven years in prison. Thing is, it’s not clear that Aitken broke the law.

Radley Balko produced an excellent write-up of Aitken’s case, and Glenn Reynolds put together a video. Aitken’s conviction is the product of (1) New Jersey’s draconian gun laws; (2) a lack of prosecutorial discretion that should have focused resources on real threats to society; and (3) a judge’s refusal to issue jury instructions on the “moving exception” to New Jersey’s gun laws. The same judge dismissed animal cruelty charges against a police officer that had placed his penis in the mouths of five calves. The judge was serving in a temporary capacity and not reappointed by Governor Christie. This is overcriminalization compounded by incompetence.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has said that he intends to make a decision on Aitken’s conviction by Christmas. If you’ve got the time, here is a link to information on joining Aitken’s Facebook campaign for a pardon and a phone number to call the Governor Christie’s office and express your support.

Overcriminalization Incentives

In my post on Brian Aitken’s plight, I discussed New Jersey’s draconian gun laws and how a law-abiding citizen can become a victim of overbroad laws. New Jersey gun laws weren’t always so bad, but overcriminalization warped them into their current unconstitutional state.

This trend is a staple of modern legislative activity. Every time a politician says that we must pass a new law to “get tough on crime” and that their pet legislation ought to be passed “for the children,” it’s a sure indicator that the rule of law is about to take another body blow. Take, for instance, the crusade against sexting that threatens to make foolish teenagers into sex offenders. Or the proposed federal cyberbullying act, which aims to turn teens into federal felons, in spite of the fact that there is no federal juvenile justice system. New Jersey gun laws jumped the shark a long time ago and haven’t looked back.

The same is true with federal “honest services” fraud. In the words of one former lawmaker who fed the overcriminalization beast only to see it turn on him:

When I served in Congress, I vigorously opposed any expansion of federal agency authority. All too often, however, I exempted the Justice Department from my efforts because I wanted to give law enforcement the power it needed to keep our country safe from dangerous individuals. After enduring a years-long investigation into crimes my wife and I did not commit, and after watching the outrageous prosecution of Kevin Ring, I have serious doubts about whether I was wise to faithfully support the Justice Department. I strongly encourage the new Congress to examine the guidance and leeway the Department gives to federal prosecutors, and to refrain from passing any new vague criminal laws which seem to invite the worst prosecutorial abuse.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. For more on overcriminalization, take a look at Tim Lynch’s book, In the Name of Justice, or Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day.

Will Governor Christie Pardon Brian Aitken?

Brian Aitken, a finance student at NYU and economic scholar at the Foundation of Economic Education, ran afoul of New Jersey’s draconian gun laws when he was arrested while transporting two handguns unloaded and locked in the trunk of his car.

After separating from his wife in 2008, Aitken moved from Colorado to his native home of New Jersey the end of that year, to be closer to his son.

Shortly thereafter, in January 2009, Aitken – according to one account – “became distraught, muttered something to his mother, and left his parents’ home in Mount Laurel, NJ,” after his ex-wife canceled a visit with their son.

At that point, his mother, who is a trained social worker, called the police out of concern. That’s when things went downhill for Aitken. After the police caught up with him, they determined he wasn’t a threat to his or anyone else’s safety, but proceeded to search his car anyway. Upon finding the guns, police pressed weapons charges against Aitken.

New Jersey law makes it nearly impossible to get a concealed carry license, and you can’t otherwise take a gun out of your home unless it is in connection with several enumerated exceptions. Moving from one residence to another is one of the exceptions. Aitken was in the process of moving; it took police over two hours to remove all of his possessions from the car before they found the two guns in the trunk.

The jury never heard about the moving exception, virtually guaranteeing Brian’s conviction.

Yet Judge Morley wouldn’t allow Aitken to claim the exemption for transporting guns between residences. He wouldn’t even let the jury know about it. During deliberations, the jurors asked three times about exceptions to the law, which suggests they weren’t comfortable convicting Aitken. Morley refused to answer them all three times. Gilbert and Nappen, Aitken’s lawyers, say he also should have been protected by a federal law that forbids states from prosecuting gun owners who are transporting guns between residences. Morley would not let Aitken cite that provision either.

Brian Aitken is currently serving seven years in a state prison. Now a website and Facebook page are asking Governor Chris Christie to pardon Aitken.

Gov. Christie has proven a sensible leader and shown political courage in taking on his state’s debt-ridden “Situation.” Here’s hoping that Christie, a former prosecutor, will see that Aitken’s continued imprisonment does nothing to serve the interests of justice.

Prosecutorial Misconduct

A federal prosecutor’s misconduct tilted the scales of justice against Antonio Lyons, an Orlando businessman. Lyons served three years in prison before his attorney discovered statements from a witness that differed from the testimony given at trial. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

For more than a week in 2001, the jurors listened to one witness after another, almost all of them prison inmates, describe how Lyons had sold them packages of cocaine. One said that Lyons, who ran clothing shops and nightclubs around Orlando, tried to hire him to kill two drug dealers.

But the federal prosecutors handling the case did not let the jury hear all the facts.

Instead, the prosecutors covered up evidence that could have discredited many of Lyons’ accusers. They never disclosed that a convict who claimed to have purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons struggled to identify his photograph. And they hid the fact that prosecutors had promised to let others out of prison early in exchange for their cooperation.

An investigative project by USA Today documented 201 cases from across the nation in which federal judges found that prosecutors broke the rules. It includes a database and interactive map chronicling prosecutorial misconduct. Read the whole thing.

Check out Tim Lynch’s In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” and Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent for more on the criminal justice system.

Cybertormenting Now Illegal in Louisiana

Louisiana has a new law on the books that outlaws “any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen.”

This is a statute aimed at “cyberbullying,” the increasingly common use of text messages and social media as a vehicle for teenage taunting. The issue caught its first big headlines with the Lori Drew case. The case against the Missouri woman hailed into court in California for suicide-inducing internet harassment was a stretch of an existing federal statute that was ultimately thrown out. The government continues to contend that violating a website’s terms of service is a federal crime.

The federal cyberbullying statute proposed last year was a monstrosity. Felony time (up to two years) for a statute that will primarily be used against minors is excessive. There is no dedicated federal juvenile justice system, and this is not a good excuse to create one. Harvey Silverglate, Cato Adjunct Scholar and author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, testified at the hearings last fall.

The state laws aimed at cyberbullying are generally less onerous than the proposed federal one. The crime is a misdemeanor, and offenders under the age of seventeen are directed to the juvenile justice system. As Eugene Volokh points out, this law is still pretty bad:

Would publishing an online editorial — or a blog post — condemning an underage criminal for his crimes qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? Or would it not be “malicious” because it would be justified by righteous indignation (in which case I take it courts would have to decide what indignation is righteous and what is not)? Note that the law isn’t limited to messages sent only to the target, but includes speech published to the world at large as well.

Would sending a message castigating an ex-lover for cheating (assuming both the ex-lover and the sender are 17) qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? What if the message “speak[s] insultingly, harshly, and unjustly” (unjustly, that is, in the view of the judge), which is the dictionary definition of “abuse” that seems most relevant to speech?

So either the law is too broad, or it will be narrowed only by reading “malicious” as limited to speech that courts dislike — which raises the risk of impermissible content and viewpoint discrimination. And until the narrowing takes place (and maybe even after that), the law will be remarkably vague.

The exception for religious speech is also probably unconstitutional, because it treats nonreligious speech worse than religious speech. Cf. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (holding that content-based distinctions are presumptively unconstitutional even when they operate within an unprotected category of speech).

Volokh has provided excellent coverage of the development of this law – from proposal, to adoption, and even the scrivener’s error that purports to protect free speech from cyberbullying charges via the state constitution’s right-to-bail provision. He coined the “cybertormenting” term as well, which has the rhetorical flair appropriate for a legislative overreach of this magnitude.

Overcriminalization in the Financial Reform Legislation

The Heritage Foundation and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) made a stir by announcing their joint report, Without Intent: How Congress is Eroding the Criminal Intent Requirement in Federal Law. The report highlights the growth of federal criminal provisions in the 109th Congress. Many criminal statutes are drafted without the traditional requirement of criminal intent. When there is no requirement that the government prove you “willfully” or “knowingly” broke the law, mistakes are treated the same as intentional criminality. Some laws are written so broadly that it is impossible for anyone to know what conduct is illegal. Criminal provisions are included in statutes that are never reviewed by the judiciary committees of either chamber of Congress.

The NACDL has a follow-up analysis of the financial regulatory reform currently being considered by Congress. The Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 has passed both houses and is heading into committee.

This 1600-page bill does everything that the Without Intent report warned against. The “reckless disregard” intent requirement is imported from tort law in several provisions and many others have no mental state requirement at all. New bribery and mail/wire fraud provisions are included where none are necessary. Bribery and fraud are already illegal.

Read the whole thing (direct .pdf link here).