Have you ever tried to crack open a copy of the federal criminal code? It’s not exactly light reading. The expansion of the federal code to nearly 5,000 criminal statutes, as well as over 300,000 regulations carrying criminal penalties, has resulted in a code that no average American citizen could be expected to read and understand. Some of these laws and regulations impose criminal penalties on people who have no idea they are even violating a law.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee approved a package of five bipartisan criminal justice reform bills. I’ve been working on this issue since becoming chairman of the Committee, starting with forming a task force three years ago to examine the explosion of federal criminal law, commonly referred to as over-criminalization.
There’s a reason the federal code contains nearly 5,000 criminal statutes today. All too often when Congress has been faced with a problem it has enacted a federal statute creating a new crime. These crimes may be outdated, ill-drafted, or just plain ridiculous. However, they still exist. One of the bills approved, the Clean Up the Code Act, eliminates several unused, unnecessary sections of the U.S. Code that subject violators to criminal penalties, such as the unauthorized use of the 4-H emblem or the interstate transportation of dentures. Additionally, the Regulatory Reporting Act requires every federal agency to submit a report to Congress listing each rule of that agency that, if violated, may be punishable by criminal penalties, along with information about the rule.
The third bill, the Criminal Code Improvement Act, creates a default criminal intent requirement to apply where none currently exists, which will help protect American citizens who did not know or have reason to know that they were violating federal law. The Fix the Footnotes Act is a technical but important piece of legislation that fixes the footnotes in the current version of the code to address errors made in drafting the laws. It’s Congress’ duty to keep its house in order and correct mistakes. When American citizens’ liberty is at stake, every word counts.
Another bill passed out of Committee is the Sentencing Reform Act, which I introduced. This legislation strikes an important balance between making common sense changes to certain federal drug sentences while helping law enforcement keep violent offenders behind bars and saving taxpayer dollars. It also contains sentencing enhancements for trafficking in heroin cut with fentanyl, a highly addictive and deadly drug that has led to a rash of deaths across the United States, including in Virginia.
Advancing this legislation is a significant accomplishment and the product of a great deal of collaboration between Members on both sides of the aisle. However, our work to reform the criminal justice system does not end here. In the coming weeks the Judiciary Committee will roll out additional bills to ensure our system works responsibly and reflects core American values. I hope you will stay tuned as Congress moves forward with these important reforms.
Bob Goodlatte represents the Sixth District of Virginia in Congress.