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The Economist Takes on Overcriminalization

They may spell it "overcriminalisation," but the British newspaper takes the problem on in two freely accessible pieces from this week's print issue. The cover story, "Rough Justice," critiques both the expansion of American criminal law and the size of its penalties. Money quote:

IN 2000 four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforces. They had fallen foul of the Lacey Act, which bars Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing. The original intent was to prevent Americans from, say, poaching elephants in Kenya. But it has been interpreted to mean that they must abide by every footling wildlife regulation on Earth. The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece. Two are still in jail.

A companion piece, "Too Many Laws, Too Many Prisoners," tells the story of George Norris, a 65-year-old Texan who spent 17 months in federal prison for a paperwork violation on some orchids he sold to an undercover federal officer. His orchid business was largely a hobby -- he had never profited more than $20k per year -- but neither this nor his age prevented the feds from sending three trucks full of flak-jacketed, armed men to detain him and search his home. Norris' subsequent arrest mystified his fellow federal jailbirds:

In March 2004, five months after the raid, Mr Norris was indicted, handcuffed and thrown into a cell with a suspected murderer and two suspected drug-dealers. When told why he was there, "they thought it hilarious." One asked: "What do you do with these things? Smoke 'em?"

Both pieces are worth a read.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.