On Tuesday, Congress took a definite step in the right direction toward addressing the serious problem of overcriminalization by announcing the creation of a bipartisan House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013. The task force, which will be chaired by Representative James Sensenbrenner (R–WI), will consist of five Democrats and five Republicans.

For many years, The Heritage Foundation has been fighting overcriminalization, which involves the overuse and misuse of criminal laws and penalties to punish otherwise law abiding citizens who inadvertently violate some obscure statute or regulation. Heritage has highlighted the stories of numerous individuals who have been caught in the web of overcriminalization and has offered recommendations to address this burgeoning problem. We have been proud to work with a broad coalition of organizations from across the political spectrum on this vital issue.

It’s high time that lawmakers recognized the need to proceed carefully in using their power to create crimes. Heritage recommends that the task force engage in a thorough and prompt review of the overcriminalization problem. We also urge the task force to come up with solutions, including legislation, that

  • Absent extraordinary circumstances, federal prosecutors prove the accused acted with a guilty state of mind before he or she can be convicted of a crime;
  • Allow defendants to raise a “mistake of law” defense in appropriate cases; and
  • Require the Attorney General to publish and maintain a user-friendly, easily-accessible inventory and index of all federal criminal offenses.

All Americans have an interest in seeing to it that the blameworthy go to prison, but that the blameless do not. When morally blameless individuals unwittingly commit acts that turn out to be crimes and are prosecuted for those offenses, not only are the lives of the accused adversely impacted, perhaps irreparably, but the public’s respect for the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system is diminished. That is something that should concern everyone.