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Bloated Federal Criminal Code Ensnares Everyday Citizens, Panel Says

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on December 20, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Is the federal criminal code out of control? Experts told a House panel on Tuesday that it includes over 4,500 statutes -- that's in addition to another 300,000 agency regulations that impose other criminal sanctions.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) believes this is a problem, as the lesser known prohibitions often ensnare well-meaning citizens. He's thus proposed a bill that will reduce the federal criminal code by 1/3.

It's still over 1,200 pages in length.

The Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act (H.R. 1823) is a complete overhaul. It reorganizes the code and consolidates offenses. There is a common set of definitions, and the code only includes one "attempt" and one "conspiracy."

It also tries to clear up any confusion about the applicable mens rea, according to a statement released by Rep. Sensenbrenner. If possible, a crime will include the word "knowingly" or some higher standard. Only "regulatory" offenses will require "willfulness."

If adopted, the Act would be the first revision in almost 50 years. With Congress adding some 500 new crimes a decade, there are undoubtedly a number of duplicates. Some statutes have even gone 30 years without use, claims the Congressman.

The new code would arguably be easier to navigate for citizens, judges and attorneys alike. But could it also complicate things?

For example, the proposal would move immigration and drug crimes out of Titles 8 and 21 into Title 18. But those provisions will likely still rely on definitions located in the former Titles. Legal professionals will understand this, but will ordinary citizens?

Keeping this in mind, do you think the code overhaul is a good idea? Or should it be left alone?

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