The House Judiciary Committee approved today the creation of the bipartisan Over-Criminalization Task Force. The task force will consist of five Republicans and five Democrats and will be led by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA).

Chairman Sensenbrenner: “As former chairman and long-serving member of the Judiciary Committee, I’ve seen first-hand just how muddled the criminal code is.  It’s time to scrub it clean. The Over-Criminalization Task Force will review federal laws in Title 18, and laws outside of Title 18 that have not gone through the Judiciary Committee, to modernize our criminal code. 

“In addition, I reintroduced the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act today, which would reform Title 18 of the U.S. Code, reduce the existing criminal code by more than one-third and update the code to make it more comprehensible.” 

Congressman Sensenbrenner prepared the following opening statement for today’s full Committee markup of the “Over-Criminalization Task Force Resolution of 2013”:

The Over-criminalization Task Force established by this resolution continues the Committee’s bipartisan review of over-criminalization and over-federalization that began two Congresses ago.  The Crime Subcommittee held hearings in both the 111th and 112th Congress to resurrect important policy discussions that had been dormant for over two decades about the breadth and scope of federal criminal law.  

Today, there are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the books.  And still many more regulations and rules that, if not abided by, result in criminal penalties, including incarceration.  Many of these laws impose criminal penalties – often felony penalties – for violations of federal regulations.  

Americans are expected to know it is wrong to commit murder or burglary or engage in an act of terrorism, regardless of what the law says.  But today Americans must contend with literally thousands of obscure and cumbersome federal regulations, a simple misreading or ignorance of a regulation can land a person in prison.  

An even more fundamental issue raised by such regulations is whether the prohibited conduct should be criminalized in the first place.  Unfortunately, many regulatory crimes improperly define the elements of criminality, including omitting or improperly defining the appropriate level of criminal intent.  

The growth in criminal regulations has also caused an expansion of the number of federal agencies empowered to investigate this “criminal” conduct.  We are all familiar with criminal investigative agencies such as the FBI, DEA, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  But what about the National Marine Fisheries Service within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?  Or the Office of Criminal Investigations within the Food and Drug Administration?  Along with broad-sweeping criminal regulations comes a host of investigative agencies eager to enforce them.  

The goal of the Over-criminalization Task Force is to conduct a more in-depth analysis of these and other over-criminalization and over-federalization issues, to identify improvements to federal law and the House Rules, and to make bipartisan, unanimous recommendations to the Committee.

It has been over 50 years since the criminal code was last revised.  The existing criminal code is riddled with provisions that are either outdated or simply inconsistent with more recent modifications to reflect today’s modern approach to criminal law.  

Through the years, the criminal code has grown with more and more criminal provisions, some of which are antiquated or redundant, some of which are poorly drafted, some of which have not been used in the last 30 years, and some of which are unnecessary since the crime is already covered by other existing criminal provisions.

Today I will re-introduce the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act to reform and recodify Title 18 of the U.S. Code.  This effort to reform the federal criminal code has resulted in a bill that exceeds 1,200 pages in length – and this bill encompasses only Part I of Title 18.  If nothing else, the sheer volume of this bill brings into specific focus the breadth of the criminal code and the need to reform it.    

I look forward to working with Ranking Member Scott and the other members of the Task Force to identify common-sense, bipartisan solutions to not only reform the criminal laws within Title 18 but also the myriad of criminal laws that are now scattered throughout many of the fifty-one titles of the U.S. Code.