March 17, 2005
Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, perhaps better known as the Instapundit, talks here about overcriminalization and the trend of categorizing most crimes as felonies, resulting in widespread disenfranchisement, etc. He writes: "Felonies
were once a fairly rare class of crime, a class that generally carried
capital punishment as a more-than-theoretical possibility. A felon was,
by virtue of his heinous acts, an outcast from society. Even if
permitted to live, he was expected to bear the mark of his iniquity for
life, in the form of lost civil rights like the right to vote and the
right to bear arms. To be a felon was to be a permanent outcast within
one's own society.
The issuance of new currency is a common response to runaway inflation. It's also a futile one if the authorities just keep the printing presses running. That's what happened in Tennessee, as lawmakers vied to designate more crimes as "Class X" felonies in order to demonstrate their toughness on crime, until the whole enterprise became a legislative joke.
It's been pretty much the same story everywhere else. Where once "felony" meant things like murder, rape, or armed robbery, now it includes things like music piracy, or filling in potholes that turn out to be "wetlands." As the title to a recent book edited by Gene Healy notes, we've achieved the criminalization of almost everything.
Which means, in fact, the criminalization of almost everyone,
too -- if you haven't been convicted of some felony or other, it's
probably because no prosecutor has tried to put you away, not because
you haven't committed one, whether you realized it at the time or not.
With felonies created so promiscuously, it's no surprise that people are upset that in the process we've created so many permanent outcasts. Separating a few people from society may be salubrious, but as the numbers grow, so does the stress, and the numbers have grown a lot." [Mark Godsey]
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