gotojail(Friday’s Populist Capitalist Blog Post)

You are a felon. A multiple felon at that.

Or so says Harvey A. Silverglate, a Boston-based left-wing civil liberties attorney and author. In his new book, “Three Felonies a Day,” Silverglate makes the case that ”federal criminal law is so comprehensive and vague that all Americans violate it every day, meaning that prosecutors can indict anyone at all.” (The New York Times, November 24, 2009, “Right and Left Join Forces on Criminal Justice.”)

Traditionally in a republican form of government criminal laws are narrowly construed in order to protect free people from the power of the state. Federal statutes have in excess of 4,400 criminal offenses, “many of them lacking a requirement that prosecutors prove traditional kinds of criminal intent.” One of the normal safeguards is that the state must not only prove that you did a bad thing, but also prove criminal intent, you intended to do the bad thing. This protects against throwing people in prison for what are essentially accidents.

Overcriminalization is the increasing tendency to make relatively minor violations of the law criminal offenses. For example, it is a criminal violation of federal law to give a false weather report. As the downside of this heavy-handed approach to regulation has become increasingly evident, it has galvanized the left and the right. When Edwin Meese III, a former “law and order” Republican attorney general, and the ACLU team up, you know you’ve got a wide base of support.

We Americans have twice the incarceration rate of most developed countries and a higher crime rate. Sometimes less is more. Perhaps the answer is fewer laws, not more. The money we save on prisons could be spent on education instead. Or reducing the national debt with which we are currently burdening our grandchildren.