Blogs > Liberty and Power > Go Directly to Jail

Nov 29, 2004 1:22 pm

Go Directly to Jail


Cato has just released a new book on the crisis of overcriminalization, edited by, uh, me. The book's called Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything. The criminal law used to be society's last line of defense--reserved for behavior that everyone recognized as seriously wrong. Now it's becoming Congress's first line of attack--a way for legislators to show they're serious about whatever social problem is currently making headlines, whether it's corporate scandals or email spam. The results are a burgeoning prison population, unchecked prosecutorial power, and a growing threat to the rule of law.

The book focuses on three trends in particular:

1. Overcriminalization: the use of the criminal law to punish behavior that used to be handled with civil lawsuits or fines, or even to cover behavior that's just none of the government's business.

2. Runaway federalization of crime. The Constitution leaves the ordinary administration of criminal justice to the states. Yet the federal government increasingly over the last 30 years has started to take over the prosecution of street crime. There are only three federal crimes in the Constitution. But today there are over 4,000 federal crimes. That in itself is a crime against the Constitution.

3. The use of heavy-handed criminal law enforcement tactics against people guilty of minor offenses at worst and in some cases people who aren't guilty of crimes at all.

The book has something for everyone. Conservatives will appreciate the focus on the rule of law and the dangers of leaving ordinary businesspeople at the mercy of prosecutorial whims. Liberals will appreciate the extended treatment of mandatory minimums and the impact of the drug war. Pick up a copy here. If you have a blog, I'd appreciate it if you would spread the word.

Incidentally, I'm upset that they cut the cigarette out of the cover photo.

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chris l pettit - 11/30/2004

I look forward to getting a copy of the text and reading it. With permission I may even use it in the philosophy portion of my international criminal law class?

Incidentally...did you cover the effects of the philosophy of legal positivism on criminalization (which is directly related to Dr. Dresner;s point about totalitarian states, all of which operated from a positivistic bent)?


Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2004

It is indeed a subject worth serious discussion. I'm a die-hard liberal historian who nonetheless teaches that the totalitarian states of the 20th century were natural outgrowths of the evolution of "liberal democracy" from restraint to stewardship, an evolution that continues.

I agree about the cigarette, too: it would have been a nice touch, tieing together the criminalization of social vice and the inherently unhealthy aspects of prison experiences...

Sheldon Richman - 11/29/2004

Sounds great! The Freeman will surely review it.