NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Bar Panel Warns Against Federalizing Crime

February 16, 1999

Seconding earlier advice from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, an American Bar Association group is warning Congress not to turn more offenses into federal crimes. The panel was led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III.

The trend toward investing the federal government with jurisdiction over a growing list of crimes is "misguided, unnecessary and harmful" says the panel's report, "The Federalization of Criminal Law." Negative consequences include the growth of a national police force, a buildup of federal computer data which could intrude into individuals' privacy, increased strains on federal courts and escalation of federal crime-fighting costs.

  • The report noted that 40 percent of all federal criminal laws that had been enacted since the Civil War were passed since 1970.
  • There are so many federal criminal statutes now on the books that "there is no conveniently accessible, complete list of federal crimes," according to the report.
  • Federal criminal justice expenditures grew by 317 percent from 1982 to 1993 -- compared with a 163 percent increase in state criminal justice financing over that period.
  • Of the 59,242 federal charges filed against individuals in 1997, 28 percent were for drug trafficking alone.

Despite the huge increase in financing for federal anti-crime efforts, 95 percent of all prosecutions are still handled by state and local authorities. Several new laws -- like 1994 legislation making drive-by shootings federal offenses -- did not result in one single charge being filed in 1997. Clogging courts with federal criminal cases disadvantages civil litigants, since criminal cases are given priority, the report warned.

It urged Congress to consider the costs to federal and state systems of any new federal criminal law before it is enacted -- using research by the Congressional Budget Office or the Congressional Research Service.

Source: Steven A. Holmes, "Lawmakers Are Warned Not to Expand Federal Police Powers," New York Times, February 16, 1999.


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