Press Releases

House Judiciary Committee Unveils Bills to Address Federal Over-Criminalization

Washington, DC, November 17, 2015

House Judiciary Committee Unveils Bills to Address Federal Over-Criminalization

These bills are part of the Committee’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiative

As part of the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform initiative, members of the House Judiciary Committee unveiled four bills to rein in the explosion of federal criminal law, commonly referred to as over-criminalization.  These bills, along with the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), will be marked up by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, November 18, 2015.

The United States Code currently contains nearly 5,000 federal crimes.  Recent studies estimate that approximately 60 new federal crimes are enacted each year, and over the past three decades, Congress has averaged 500 new crimes per decade.  In addition to the statutory criminal offenses, there are thousands of federal regulations that, if violated, can also result in criminal liability.  Many of these laws and regulations impose criminal penalties on people who have no idea they are violating a law.

The bills unveiled today address the underlying issues that have contributed to over-criminalization:

The Criminal Code Improvement Act of 2015, authored by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), creates a default mens rea standard that applies when federal law does not provide a state of mind requirement so that only those who actually intend to commit the crime can be criminally liable. It also creates uniform definitions for several terms frequently used throughout title 18 of the Criminal Code.

“Mens rea is a critical issue that must be addressed as Congress examines and puts forth serious criminal justice reform legislation,” said Crime Subcommittee Chairman Sensenbrenner on this introduction of this bill. “Aggressive over-criminalization in this country over the past three decades has left us with a bloated criminal code that makes honest Americans and small businesses vulnerable to the legal repercussions of unintentional violations. Reform is necessary to improve our current standards, reduce our overbearing criminal code, and protect the freedoms of hardworking American citizens.”

The Regulatory Reporting Act of 2015, sponsored by Congresswoman Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), which requires every federal agency to submit a report to Congress listing each rule of that agency that, if violated, may be punishable by criminal penalties, along with information about the rule.

“The federal regulatory burden has expanded exponentially over the past decades,” said Congresswoman Walters. “Perhaps the worst type of overregulation occurs when unelected bureaucrats put in place regulations that, if violated, carry criminal penalties. This bill takes the first step in reining in federal regulatory overreach and restoring important power to Congress in determining criminal statutes.”

The Clean Up the Code Act of 2015, authored by Congressman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), eliminates several statutes in the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties, such as the unauthorized use of the 4-H emblem or the interstate transportation of dentures.

“While we need to make sure that there are appropriate punishments for illegal activity, people should not be criminally prosecuted for honest mistakes or benign behavior,” said Congressman Chabot.  “Over the last few decades, there has been a significant expansion of the federal criminal code, and that has led to the criminalization of some activities that simply should not be crimes, such as unauthorized use of an emblem or slogan or the transportation of dentures.  Our legislation will help to simplify and streamline the federal criminal code by eliminating several unnecessary and trivial criminal penalties."

The Fix the Footnotes Act of 2015, sponsored by Congressman Ken Buck (R-Colo.), fixes the footnotes in the current version of the Criminal Code to address errors made by Congress in drafting the laws.

“Constituents expect their representatives to thoughtfully maintain and update the nation’s Criminal Code, to ensure the law is applied justly and effectively,” said Congressman Buck.  “To that end, I’m proud to introduce the Fix the Footnotes Act of 2015, which fixes errors that Congress made when originally drafting the laws.  While the fixes may only be technical changes, every word is important when Americans’ liberty is at stake.”  

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said the following on the introduction of these bills:

“Over the past few decades, the federal criminal code has expanded dramatically.  The bills introduced by several of our colleagues make commonsense changes to the federal criminal code to ensure our laws fit within the overall federal criminal law scheme, are appropriate in force relative to other criminal laws, require that a person must intend to commit a crime in order to be criminally liable for that crime, and are necessary.  We look forward to moving these bills through the Committee soon.”