In today's battles over the size (and cost) of the federal government, we shouldn't ignore the criminal justice system -- or what is considered a federal crime. Over the years, the list of federal crimes has grown, even adding traditionally state-level crimes to the federal criminal code. For example, street-corner drug selling -- which could be (and often is) ably handled by the local police -- can land a person in federal prison, often with a decade-long mandatory minimum sentence.
Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s. ...
Under English common law principles, most U.S. criminal statutes traditionally required prosecutors not only to prove that defendants committed a bad act, but also that they also had bad intentions. In a theft, don't merely show that the accused took someone's property, but also show that he or she knew it belonged to someone else.
Over time, lawmakers have devised a sliding scale for different crimes. For instance, a "willful" violation is among the toughest to prove.A big part of this "overfederalization" problem is poorly-drafted laws from Congress. Another part of the problem is that some of this stuff shouldn't be a federal crime in the first place. And from a sentencing standpoint, the worst problem is when Congress slaps a mandatory minimum prison term on these offenses.
Federal prisons are overcrowded -- dangerously so. That precious bed space costs taxpayers a fortune. We should use it wisely, for offenses that are really crimes and are really federal (not state) crimes.