The ABA Addresses Over-Criminalization and Over-Incarceration

Recently I blogged about the lack of political discourse in our recent campaigns about the crushing financial and social burden caused by the overcriminalization and overincarceration of people in this country. It has been a topic that has been largely ignored by politicians because they fear being considered “soft on crime.” However, that does not mean the topic is being completely ignored by policy makers. I was catching up on reading over the Thanksgiving Day holiday and came across an editorial in the American Bar Association’s fall issue of Criminal Justice. The editorial, written by William Sheperd, the chair person of the ABA’s Criminal Justice Section, argues that overcriminalization is one of the greatest challenges facing the criminal justice system in the United States. Sheperd, as chair of the section, has made addressing this challenge one of his top three priorities for 2013. He has partnered with prosecutors and defense attorneys to address the matter. Sheperd succinctly identifies the issue: “This is not simply a discussion of overincarceration, but instead an equally important question of what conduct do we actually want to criminalize?” In light of the recent legalization of personal use amounts of marijuana in Washington and Colorado, legislatures across the country must ask themselves how much time, money and resources do they want to spend criminalizing all aspects of human behavior. Drug use, prostitution, and copyright infringement may have societal costs and moral implications, but do we benefit as a society from criminalizing acts that could otherwise be regulated or addressed through the civil court system? One of the few bright sides of the economic collapse may be that it may force legislatures to reconsider their decades long approach of viewing criminalization and incarceration as a panacea for all social ills. As I suggested in my last post, it is up to us, as citizens, to keep asking our legislators the tough questions on these topics. Our elected officials need to know so they know it is alright to tackle the problems rather than resort to the populist “lock ’em up” rhetoric that has dominated the landscape for the past 20 years.