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.