When it comes to criminal laws, Congress is like a hoarder who never cleans house and just keeps piling up more and more stuff. There are some 4,500 federal crimes listed in the U.S. Code. The Code of Federal Regulations adds tens of thousands of regulations that, if violated, create criminal liability. There are numerous duplicative and overlapping laws. Many federal laws are ambiguous because they do not specify the required mental state required to commit the particular crime (such as “willful,” “knowing,” or “negligent”). Congress has also federalized crimes that were historically reserved to state jurisdiction, so that the same conduct can now be prosecuted by both the federal government and state governments. Our civil asset forfeiture laws are overbroad and allow the government to take property away from citizens — with minimal proof — for the government’s own use. All these problems invite selective and inconsistent enforcement of the law by police and prosecutors. They also diminish the legitimacy of our laws, inviting a disrespect of the judicial system which undermines civil society and the rule of law. As your Senator, I will work to rationalize, clarify, and narrow our federal criminal laws.
Although the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s inmates. The “tough on crime” politics of the 1980s and 1990s disproportionately emphasized punishment and incarceration over the additional important goals of treatment and rehabilitation. These policies have hurt employment prospects, income, and family involvement of the large percentage of our population who have passed through the criminal justice system. Minority groups have been disproportionately affected by these policies. Long incarceration periods, even for non-violent offenders, combined with high recidivism rates, have left taxpayers with a heavy burden. The Department of Justice’s annual budget for prisons and detention is $8.5 billion and growing. Mass incarceration has also substantially increased the poverty level in this country.
Congress must conduct a comprehensive review and overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system. There are often more effective, less costly alternatives than prison for those who suffer from mental illness or struggle with drug dependency. We must halt and then reverse the trend towards private prisons. It is bad public policy to create a private industry dedicated to incarcerating more and more Americans — and giving politicians more and more campaign contributions to make that happen. We must substantially limit the use of mandatory minimum sentences because they often do not correlate with the wrongfulness or harm of the underlying conduct. As Alaska’s Senator, I will work hard to keep violent offenders who threaten society incarcerated, support evidence-based risk assessments to determine who would benefit from parole, and support rehabilitative and mental health services that will ultimately reduce incarceration costs and poverty rates.