17 August 2010

Building the Prisons to House Ourselves

After reading a recent article in The Economist about the high rate of imprisonment in the U.S., I looked up an essay written by a Federal judge that was referenced in the article. In the essay entitled "You're (Probably) a Federal Criminal," Judge Alex Kozinski confirmed something that I have suspected for many years- an unholy alliance of out of control politicians, judges and a populace screaming of justice has created a vast labyrinth of Federal regulations that many of us probably break on a regular basis without even realizing it. The maze of Federal regulations is so dense and vast that a team of researchers from the Congressional Research Service gave up trying to count the number of separate offences currently on the books.

Federal regulations permeate everything we do in the modern world- the materials in our homes and cars, the paints, soaps and solvents we use, the food we eat, our ATM cards and bank accounts, our jobs and businesses etc. Like an immense fishing net, it is a fair bet that at some point you broke a Federal statute that could have landed you in the big house. While it is unlikely that you would ever be prosecuted for these transgressions, the real danger is when they effectively pile on one of our fellow citizens. In one of his examples from his essay, Kozinski notes how businessmen bringing lobsters into the U.S. using the incorrect type of shipping containers, soon found themselves in deeper trouble as money laundering charges were tacked on (they put the money in the bank, thus triggering Federal banking laws.)Any minor Federal violation, coupled with banking or mail fraud, can quickly escalate into serious prison time.

Who do we blame for this mess ? I'm afraid its every one's fault- left and right, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal. I suppose Anarchists can't be blamed since we have been calling the system rubbish for many years, but I digress. Right wing politicians and judges who want to appear tough on crime have caved into their constituencies by increasing penalties, adopting three strikes regulations and calling for ever greater regulation. On the left, the environmental movement (among others) realized some time ago that they could make their policies much more effective by adding the threat of the Federal stick to their carrot. The net result is a massive Federal bureaucracy built to support Leviathan- clerks, agents, judges and staff, field investigators etc. that are wholly dependent upon the system staying just the way it is.

Next time you hear a politician ranting about how they are going to make you safer by stiffening penalties, or environmentalists calling for oil company executives to be thrown in the slammer, ask yourself how punishing others effectively chips away at your own freedoms. I fear that it will be too late when we realize that building more prisons to house "them" was effectively done to house "us."

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