Shining a Light on Overcriminalization

Overcriminalization—the overuse or misuse of the criminal law to address societal problems—manifests itself in a variety of ways, including overly broad definitions of criminal acts, excessively harsh sentencing, and criminal sanctions for simple mistakes or accidents under a theory of strict liability. However, overcriminalization has a more tangible aspect beyond legislation and legal theory: American citizens all too often find themselves trapped by the very system that they assumed existed for their protection and prosecuted for crimes that most people would not even recognize as criminal offenses. Criminal justice reform is about more than policy debates in Congress or legal procedure; it is about how the lives and fortunes of ordinary Americans are threatened by abuse of the law. Only by identifying the problem and highlighting why it matters will any meaningful change take place.

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