Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200.

You remember what Avon Barksdale says about prison, right?

You only spend two days inside. The day you go in, and the day you get out.

Yeah maybe tough guy, but I’ll put my own cards on the table: roughly one in 40 people in America are currently either imprisoned or on probation, often for very minor offenses. This rate is extremely high and obviously inappropriate.

There are over 4,000 federal crimes, and many times that number of regulations that carry criminal penalties. When analysts at the Congressional Research Service tried to count the number of separate offences on the books, they were forced to give up, exhausted. Rules concerning corporate governance or the environment are often impossible to understand, yet breaking them can land you in prison. In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.

“The founders viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years, an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalisation the first line of attack—a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it’s corporate scandals or e-mail spam,” writes Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar. “You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

Read on.

[The Economist via The Browser]

[image via HBO]
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August 11, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Reading.

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