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America, the Law-crazed

Comment

Over the past few decades, America has locked up more and more people. Our prison population has tripled. Now we jail a higher percentage of people than even the most repressive countries: China locks up 121 out of every 100,000 people; Russia 511. In America? 730.

"Never in the civilized world have so many been locked up for so little," The Economist says.

Yet we keep adding more laws and longer jail terms.

Lavrentiy Beria, head of Joseph Stalin's secret police in the old Soviet Union, supposedly said, "Show me the man, and I'll show you the crime." Stalin executed anyone he considered a threat, and it didn't take much to be considered a threat. Beria could always find some law the targeted person had broken. That's easy to do when there are tons of vague laws on the books. Stalin "legally" executed nearly a million people that way.

I'm not saying that America is like Stalin's Russia, but consider the federal laws we have. The rules that bind us now total more than 160,000 pages. The Congressional Research Service said it was unable to count the number of crimes on the books. Yet last week the feds added or proposed another thousand pages. States and cities have thousands more. Have you read them all? Have our "representatives" read them all? You know the answer.

When there is a big crime, legislators quickly demand that felons be given longer jail sentences and "mandatory minimums" for repeat offenses. This wins votes but kills judicial discretion and crushes unlucky people.

In Iowa, a man with an old felony conviction found a bullet, put it on his dresser and forgot about it. A police officer, looking for something else, saw the bullet. Felons may not possess any ammunition, and this "crime" made the man a repeat offender. He's now serving a 15-year mandatory sentence for possession of ammunition. Really. The long sentence was appealed, but the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it, saying its hands were tied by the mandatory minimum set in law.

Most of us won't be victimized by mandatory minimums or the countless ambiguities in today's laws, but if you are the kind of person America needs most — an inventor who creates something or someone who builds a business — there is a bigger chance that you'll fall victim to the incomprehensible maze.

The laws burdening business and finance are bewildering — Dodd-Frank merely piled on. Even enterprises with big legal and accounting departments better watch out.

Then there's the so-called war on drugs — a war on people, actually. Lots of politicians admit that they used drugs in their youth — even presidents. Barack Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father": "Pot had helped ... ; maybe a little blow (cocaine) when you could afford it."

And, yet in office, these same politicians preside over an injustice system that jails a million Americans for doing what they did. Don't they see the hypocrisy? Give me a break.

Libertarian entertainer Penn Jillette has it right: "If Obama had been caught with the marijuana that he says he used and 'maybe a little blow' ... if he had been busted under his laws, he would have done hard ——ing time ... time in federal prison, time for his 'weed' and 'a little blow,' he would not be president ... would not have gone to his fancy-ass college, he would not have sold books ... made millions of dollars. ... He would have been in ——ing prison, and it's not a goddamn joke."

I want my government to arrest real criminals — ones who violate our rights — and to lock them up so we'll be protected. But our politicians go way beyond that. Governments at all levels have long been in the business of forbidding conduct that violates no one's rights and piling on complex laws to govern conduct that might harm someone. And they keep passing more.

They have created a byzantine maze of criminal law that is so incomprehensible that even legal specialists don't agree on what the rules specify. Then ambitious prosecutors ruin lives enforcing those laws. The prosecutors and lawmakers say this is for our own good.

No, it's not.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="http://www.johnstossel.com" <http://www.johnstossel.com>>johnstossel.com</a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Comments

6 Comments | Post Comment
Great great great column, John boy. Today you wrote a column worthy of the John I used to read and listen to before he became Fox's 'John Stossel'.
This particular paragraph really struck home with me: ...." I want my government to arrest real criminals ones who violate our rights and to lock them up so we'll be protected......." But our politicians go way beyond that. Governments at all levels have long been in the business of forbidding conduct that violates no one's rights and piling on complex laws to govern conduct that might harm someone. And they keep passing more."

The entire paragraph is good but this last statement particularly rings true.."forbidding conduct that violates no one's rights". Dahyum, it wasn't that long ago they forbid interracial marriage, forbid women to vote, it was against the law. Tell that to kids today and they don't believe it. But tell them they'll go to jail and serve more time for sharing a joint than they would for underage drinking and they believe it. Everyone knows someone doing time or who did time for some bullshit drug charge thanks to the neocon religious right who have helped turn our laws and lawmakers into Christian versions of Sharia law. They and their godless version of Christianity have to go!
Comment: #1
Posted by: morgan
Tue Jul 24, 2012 5:27 PM
I agree with your point Morgan until the rant on Christianity. It is not Christians who are piling on the laws in America. The Bloombergs and Pelosis and Obamas want to run everyone's lives. By and large the Christian community wants to be left and alone and be free to practice their religion. I know you can bring up abortion and flag burning and gay marriage, but the war on drugs and the war on poverty and the laws against food and finance don't come from the religious right. They come from the academic left. I'm a pastor and I wish the church which get out of the lives of people who don't attend the church. Let others burn their flags or smoke their pot. The church should take some of the blame for our stupid laws, but lay the majority of it on the academics who think they can run your life better than you.
Comment: #2
Posted by: willson
Wed Jul 25, 2012 6:48 AM
Re: willson. Thank you for your comment. I truly don't wish to offend, but I have spent years in self directed study seeking my own understanding of the teachings of the great religions, and the prophets, teachers, and spiritual masters. I am offended by the religious zealots who have imposed their oppressive, limited views on a people searching for their own humanity and answers as to what's right and wrong, what's moral or immoral. I am neither a writer nor erudite and I find it difficult to express myself without sometimes causing offense. I have the highest regard for true teachers, those who allow the student to find their on path. They have the assuredness that all roads lead to God and we will be self directed to follow the true teachings and never harm our brothers. Unfortunately, that's too peaceful a transition for today's religions.
That said, I also believe academics should teach academia and fill our brains with all we can learn about our material world, and let those gifted in understanding humanity and the human condition teach us about our greater, mysterious self that links us to each other and every living thing on our planet. Churches today are like the restaurants you can find in any city in America. No matter what the name, they are usually part of some major chain. No matter what the name of the building, when you go inside the menu is consistent with every other and the service is consistent with every other. Only thing different is the price and the ambiance.
Just because everyone is serving the same old menu the same old way doesn't make it right. And certainly doesn't mean it's healthy and good for you.

The few churches I've attended in which I've felt at home are what most "Christian" churches view as renegade or not true followers of the Bible, when in effect they are saying 'if they don't teach and practice our rigid dogma, they're not truly Christian'. To me, that's a crock. I don't wish the church would get out of the lives of those who don't attend church, I don't wish that at all. I wish the church would take a lesson from the great teachers. When Christ spoke, he found many followers because he had a message that directly impacted the lives of those he came to serve. I think the church should examine it's message. To paraphrase: If you say it, they will come.
Comment: #3
Posted by: morgan
Wed Jul 25, 2012 7:50 AM
Unfortunately, what people fear even more than criminals, is actual freedom.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Blane Jackson
Wed Jul 25, 2012 2:31 PM
We all want laws that do not affect us but control the behavior of others. Forgetting, of course, those laws will affect our own behavior. But that's what laws are all about. And we all demand them. (tip: It was Nixon who introduced the "War on Drugs") Still, a great opinion piece.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Douglas4517
Sun Jul 29, 2012 5:59 AM
Re: Douglas4517 Nixon "coined the phrase", war on drugs but it was a continuation of a continuation the drug prohibition policies in the U.S., which started in 1914.
Comment: #6
Posted by: David Henricks
Sun Jul 29, 2012 1:24 PM
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