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So many laws, so many crimes, Part 2: Anyone might be charged

Well-known political columnist George Will contends that an important element of American jurisprudence -- namely, the idea that a person should face criminal sanctions only if he or she has engaged in inherently wrongful conduct or behavior known to be illegal -- is being materially undermined, if not outright diluted.

As to why, Will points immediately to the approximately 4,500 criminal statutes -- and that's just from the federal play book -- that have statutorily brought into being criminal offenses and corresponding penalties. In a recent opinion article, he calls many of them "arcane" and says that, cumulatively, they have engendered an "overcriminalization of American life."

We first mentioned Will's discontent in an April 27 blog post, noting therein his lament that prosecutorial overcharging across a spectrum of seemingly limitless -- and ever expanding -- possibilities makes a mockery of any argument that citizens continue to command any meaningful knowledge of American law.

There's just too much of it, with so-called "regulatory crimes" (don't drive your snowmobile onto protected land; don't shoot -- even mistakenly -- a bird or other animal that is on a list of threatened species) proliferating to the point that no person can remotely keep track of them or know what constitutes unlawful behavior.

There is a price for that, says Will, and it is far from insubstantial. When law can no longer be understood or applied in a manner that most people accept as fair and logical, respect for legal tradition and the application of rules can grow diminished.

These days, notes Will, prosecutors simply have "too many opportunities for generating defendants," which corrodes legal morality and reduces respect for law.

That respect is critically important. Will states that the constant accretion of new laws and attendant ambiguity serves society badly and that Congress -- the ultimate author of the regulatory state -- must get to work disassembling much of what it has created.

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