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Posted: August 18, 2011

How many laws are enough?

And how well are they working?

Thomas Frey

Driving across America we find ourselves constantly driving through invisible barriers where new laws come into play and old ones fade away. We have no clue as to what laws they are, or even how many, but these laws have the potential to ruin our lives.

In a country that claims to be the land of the free, the number of people under the control of the U.S. corrections system has exploded over the last 25 years to more than 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 U.S. adults, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States. The actual number of people behind bars rose to 2.3 million, nearly five times more than the world's average.

But true criminals are not the problem.

Headlines in the New York Times have repeatedly showed us the irony of our current dilemma - "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling," "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops," "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction," and "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime."

Logically then, if crime keeps falling, we simply won't be able to build prisons fast enough. We can only hope that real crime goes up so our criminal justice system will have real criminals to go after.

The Number of Laws

In 1982, Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official, was commissioned to oversee a project that remains to this date, the most comprehensive attempt ever to count the number of federal laws currently in place. The effort was being conducted as part of a long and failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.

After two full years of work, they were only able to offer an educated guess of "over 3,000" laws, which most people scoffed at. One recent estimate that I came across was that people in the U.S. are currently governed by over 16 million laws. Because of the regional nature of these laws, few of them pertain to everyone at any given moment.

The U.S. currently boasts the highest rate of incarceration of any country at any time in history, a full 25 percent of the world's prison population. We also have the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history, laws created by nearly 90,000 separate governmental entities. This spaghetti mess of rules and regulation is so complicated that virtually any person can get tripped up by them. One simple mistake may very well result in incarceration, and it goes downhill from there.

Estimating the Real Toll

According to Justice Department Statistics, 2.29 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails at the end of 2009. This amounts to 1 percent of all adults in the U.S. In addition, 4.9 million more were either on probation or parole. In total, 7.2 million adults were under control of the correctional system (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 - roughly 3.1 percent of adults in the U.S. resident population.

Going beyond those directly affected by the correction's system are the spouses, children, family members, and friends. Estimates range as high as 30 percent of all American are within one degree of separation from a prisoner, and 100 percent are within 2 degrees.

Incarceration is a system that breeds failure. On the prisoner level, an incoming prisoner is instantly immersed in an "us-vs-them" mindset as their surrounding community is transformed into the worst of all possible social circles. On the operational level, success in the prison industry is not measured by how many lives have been improved, but rather on occupancy levels, the number of prison incidents and escape attempts, and how well the budget is managed.

On the justice system level, more prisoners translate into larger budgets. The system was created to protect people from criminals. It was based on the notion that if someone is removed from society they can no longer harm anyone. While certain crimes warrant imprisonment, it becomes an inappropriate form of punishment for most.

In addition to creating a pervasive prison culture within our own population, it has become culturally divisive. In 2006, blacks, which represent less than 13 percent of the total U.S. population, comprised 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners. The general prison population is made up of one out of every 33 black men, one out of every 79 Hispanic men, and one out of every 205 white men.

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Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

I suppose there is truth to the saying, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely," but I know some of our local and federal officials and I do believe that many of them are good intentioned and relatively intelligent people. While it would be nice to get away from the system that you describe that includes laws because of "one incident," I doubt that's possible. Unfortunately, there are people out there that test the boundaries of what is acceptable and try to get away with anything they can. I see this all of the time on a microcosmic level in my business... if we don't include a provision in our services agreements about every little thing, there are folks out there that will try take advantage of it. It's sad, but "common sense" (as you and I may see it), isn't that common. By Nathan Jansch on 2011 08 18
First, Nathan, I applaud your touching naivete in believing that our legislators are, on the whole, fairly intelligent people. Or..they MAY be intelligent, but most, from all evidence, are fairly corrupt as well, which trumps any intelligence they may have. Secondly, a simple "Sunset" provision applied to every single law without exception would insure that unnecessary laws don't clutter up the books. Third, it is going to require a change of mindset where we stop criminalizing activity we don't happen to like, but which has minimal or no harm to people or to society. For example, one man is in prison for accidently importing an orchid that an obscure law prohibited. This is absurd! It shouldn't be a crime, but something civil. There are thousands of absurd laws just like this. Is someone selling an ounce of pot really a danger to society? I don't think so. We could clear the prisons if we had a logical and sane approach to drug use in our country. And so on. We also must stop passing laws to cover the one abuse of something that occurs. From my time on the Co. State Mental Health Grievance Board I can tell you of some very bad laws that were passed because one idiot therapist did something stupid and our legislators "had to do something." Then there is the "if it saves ONE CHILD's LIFE" fallacy. etc., etc. The problem is rules-based, linear thinking people who want to fix every little problem with a new law, a new rule or a new war. This only creates new problems and doesn't solve the old ones. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 08 18
John & Tom, I agree with the overall premise that there probably needs to be fewer laws in place, but which ones? Like with so many things, it's easy to speak in generalities, but the devil's in the details. And while I'm not enamored with our government as a whole, I think that many of our legislators are fairly intelligent and that most laws are/were enacted because of some fairly good reason. I certainly don't know the answer to this problem - so, I'm not trying to come off as though I do - I'm just wondering what kind of actionable steps we can take in response to this issue. What specific laws are out there that we can legitimately remove from the books? By Nathan Jansch on 2011 08 18
The problem won't go away until we stop putting people in office whose mindset is to operate in knee-jerk fear and punishment to every situation, such as the current officeholders do. The American answer to everything is either "more cops, longer sentences" or "send in the Marines." There ARE other options rather than macho swagger and zero-sum games. But we, as a nation, are rarely willing to explore them. It also comes from the black and white thinking that we're encouraged to have. They're the bad guys. We're the good upstanding citizens, etc. We've ALWAYS got to have an enemy, both foreign and domestic. It keeps our collective mind (such as it is) off of our very real societal problems. And, Nathan, the problem is not the real criminals. It is the criminalization of normal, everyday things that suddenly become criminal offenses that can land you in jail. You (and I) probably commit one or more a month. This gives the State the right, if they look hard enough, to lock up whomever they wish whenever they wish to do so. If you don't think these laws exist, you haven't talked to a criminal lawyer lately. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 08 18
Tom, thanks for the enlightening article. I didn't realize the number of inmates or laws was so high. May I ask, though, what your recommendations are to correct this situation? Is one uniform set of federal laws necessary to reduce the number of state and municipal laws? Based upon the way the federal government works, I would say suggest not. And even if the federal government did operate half-way effectively, I doubt that some congressman from Maine (or any other state) would be able to properly government my local municipality. A layered system of federal, state and local laws is pretty much required to address the different aspects of our society and economy. Also, don't those headlines you mention actually sort of make sense? If you have a higher number of criminals behind bars and not on the streets committing crimes, shouldn't crime rate go down? By Nathan Jansch on 2011 08 18

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